The Second Annual Conference on Semiotic Anthropology, May 6-7, 2015  

2015 CONFERENCE PROGRAM

 

WEDNESDAY, May 6


8:30 – 9:00am   Coffee and light breakfast

 

PANEL: Going Public


9:00 – 9:30am

Maria Sidorkina, Yale University

Trolling Habermas: Russian Kholivar as Infrastructure of Sociability


9:30 – 10:00am

Alejandro I. Paz University of Toronto

El Sapo Speaks: Police Informers, State Voice and Latino Labor Migrants in Israel


10:00 – 10:30am

Stephen Peters, McGill University

Disclosing violence: The public presentation of in-community social ills in Indigenous delivered podium addresses


10:30 – 11:00am

Aaron Bartels-Swindells, University of Pennsylvania

Towards an Understanding of the “Minor Writer”: Zoe Wicomb, Literary Value and the Windham Campbell Prize Reading


11:00 – 11:15am

Discussant: Hilary Dick, Arcadia University


11:15 – 11:30am   Coffee Break

 

PANEL: Quality and Quantity


11:30 – 12:00pm

Paul Kockelman, Yale University

Quantifying Entities and Sequencing Events:The Relation between Grade and Aspect in Q’eqchi’-Maya


12:00 – 12:30pm

Andrew Carruthers, Yale University

Semiotic-Anthropological Reflections on Infrastructure, Commensuration, and Equivalence


12:30 – 12:45pm

Discussant: Robert Moore, University of Pennsylvania


12:45 – 2:30pm   Lunch

 

PANEL: Instruments and Protocols


2:30 – 3:00pm

Katherine Culver, University of Pennsylvania

Objectivity in Juror Narratives of Decision-Making


3:00 – 3:30pm

Nicholas Limerick, University of Pennsylvania

Roles of indigenous identities through translating the Organic Law of Intercultural Education in Ecuador


3:30 – 4:00pm

Coleman Donaldson, University of Pennsylvania

The Social Life of Orthography Development


4:00 – 4:15pm

Discussant: Asif Agha, University of Pennsylvania


4:15 – 5:30pm   Open Discussion


6:30pm   Dinner

 

THURSDAY, May 7


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

 

PANEL: Digital Artifacts


9:00 – 9:30am

Mariam Durrani, University of Pennsylvania

The Hashtag as a Semiotic Form


9:30 – 10:00am

Sarah Neterer, University of Pennsylvania

“Pills and Potions” / “Lidakwamizwa ne mithi”: Facebook as a Corporate Archive


10:00 – 10:30am

Tri Phuong, Yale University

Irony and Power: Youth Media, Teen Code, and Intertextual Play in Late Socialist Vietnam


10:30 – 10:45am

Discussant: Stanton Wortham, University of Pennsylvania


10:45 – 11:00am   Coffee Break

 

PANEL: Persons and Groups


11:00 – 11:30am

Marshall Knudson, University of Pennsylvania

Re-Grouping Identity in Chile


11:30 – 12:00pm

Katy Hardy, Yale University

“Sweetness” or “Vulgarity”: Language Purity and The Moral Qualia of Bhojpuri


12:00 – 12:30pm

Mark Lewis, University of Pennsylvania

“I Have a Spanish Friend”: Metadiscursive Talk and Language Ideologies in Dual Language Classrooms


12:30 – 1:00pm

Catherine Rhodes University of Pennsylvania

Diacritics of Maya personhood: The De- and Re-Mayanization of Maya Linguists in Yucatan


1:00 – 1:15pm

Discussant: Angela Reyes, City University of New York


1:15 – 3:00pm   Lunch

 

PANEL: Commerce and Culture


3:00 – 3:30pm

Greg Urban, University of Pennsylvania

The Iconic Basis of Corporate Profit Making


3:30 – 4:00pm

Ferhan Tunagur University of Pennsylvania

Pure Cars and Purist Drivers


4:00 – 4:30pm

Adam Leeds, Duke University

For an Anthropology of Formalism: Semiotic Technologies for Making “the Economy”


4:30 – 4:15pm

Discussant: Asif Agha, University of Pennsylvania


4:45 – 6:00pm   Open Discussion

 

ABSTRACTS

 

Going Public

 

Trolling Habermas: Russian Kholivar as Infrastructure of Sociability

Maria Sidorkina, Yale University (maria.sidorkina@yale.edu)

In any given week outside of dacha season, the spectrum of events with a “public discussion” component in Novosibirsk includes expert round-tables, poetry readings, mafia nights, dialectical materialism lectures, oratory lessons, activist gatherings, and endless self-improvement workshops, among others. The number of such events held in Novosibirsk at least equals the rate of complaints about their senselessness. The same individuals who positively appraise the level of public discussion, also proclaim that all local instances lack “constructiveness” (Mazur). The Novosibirsk blogger Ilya Kabanov explains this unhappy situation by noting that Russia “lacks a culture of dialogue, which reveals itself in very easily crossing the line from conversation to verbal blows. That is, insults necessarily begin at the second round of discussion, after the initial comments.” His observation is a token of a popular native genre – decrying Russians’ propensity to derail civilized communicative protocols. Glosses for this national discursive habit include kholivar (holywar or flamewar); mediasratch (media shit-storm); perehod na lichnosti (shift to personal attack); bazaar; and trolling. Linguistic anthropologist Alaina Lemon suggests that Russian styles of public interaction may indeed be marked by a “conflictual aesthetic”. Paul Manning, on the other hand, suggests that infelicities of infrastructure – including “infrastructures of sociability” created by discussion – always tend to be foregrounded on Europe’s peripheries, where modernity is perpetually deferred. Whatever the reason, a persistent concern with muddy channels and derailed protocols in Russia always invites various types of “reflexivity” on the communicative norms of more sure-footed modernities. In my paper, I consider an exemplary “open socio-political discussion” in Novosibirsk on the topic of “how to improve life in the city without resorting to politics”. This discussion ended “inevitably,” as the moderator put it, “on not a very constructive note”. Was it another case of “parasites” (usurping turns, making jokes and asides) taking over “host” (protocols of civil and symmetrical deliberation)? In fact, the discussion proceedings motivated more than one meta-pragmatic judgment (mere farce of “constructive conversation”! a “benefit” for public figures! “bad theater”!). However, participants seemed to share the understanding that their interaction was able to “model” something beyond itself (an understanding they, suspiciously, shared with Habermas) (Lempert). I focus my analysis on how participants made salient the “reciprocal reflexivity” (Agha) of the interactional text and denotational text of the discussion, as well as what they accomplished by means of trolling and kholivar.


El Sapo Speaks: Police Informers, State Voice and Latino Labor Migrants in Israel

Alejandro I. Paz, University of Toronto

This paper considers the figure of “el sapo” (the toad), or police informer, among undocumented Latino labor migrants in Israel. Engaging with theories of state that emphasize its disaggregated and interpellative characteristics, I position the fear of el sapo as part of how these Latinos understood their own relationship to the Israeli state, and how the very “voice” of the state appeared to them in everyday contexts. Further, I consider how the use of informers actually draws on a long history of the collaborator in the context of Israel and Palestine, which remains a constitutive aspect of (the graduations of) Israeli citizenship. El sapo then marks one manner in which undocumented actors could reverse their deportability through a speech act which comes to both serve and represent the state.


Disclosing violence: The public presentation of in-community social ills in Indigenous delivered podium addresses

Stephen Peters, MiGill University

Public, intercultural podium events involving Aboriginal speakers have emerged as a prominentmeans of producing sanctioned, intercultural discourse in Canada. Broadly orientated to the pan-Canadian effort towards “reconciliation,” the discursive and interactional demands of these communicative practices – and the consequences they have for the self-conscious relationship- building at the centre of reconciliation – have largely remained under-theorized and under- appreciated. One such recurring need is for Aboriginal speakers to go public with intra-community social ills, the accounting of which viewed as central to reconciliation efforts. This presentation will involve a first look at transcript data from two speakers of a single event addressing Aboriginal domestic violence. Here I will attempt to work through the strategies the speakers use to engage with the task, what this reveals more generally about the work of presenting in-community social ills, and to explore some of the implications of staging Aboriginal voices has for the production of intercultural difference in Canada today.


Towards an Understanding of the “Minor Writer”: Zoe Wicomb, Literary Value and the Windham Campbell Prize Reading

Aaron Bartels-Swindells, University of Pennsylvania

Zoe Wicomb’s acceptance of the 2013 Windham Campbell Prize for Literature construed her success as “Impossible. For a minor writer like myself, this is a validation I would never have dreamt of.” What does “minor writer” signify? Is it interdiscursively related to the description of Wicomb’s work in the award’s catalogue, which “demonstrates an ongoing preoccupation with and deep insight into apartheid and its legacies” and “explore[s] the continued challenges of being in the world?” Does Wicomb’s self-characterization alter how the festival’s audience would have listened to her read an extract from her novel, David’s Story? This paper utilizes a metapragmatic understanding of language in its journey from New Haven to South Africa and back again. I begin with Wicomb’s utterance in the context of the Windham Campbell prize giving at Yale, before moving to her discussions in South African publications about literary prestige, remaining attentive to how indexes in each site create or entail social knowledge and value. My focus on the formation of value is not merely comparative, but considers the intersection of indexes and registers via their trajectories of circulation and at centers of emanation. I then yoke my examination of the minor writer to the practice of parsing a text. Analysing the extract Wicomb read as an entextualized segment of her novel, I ask how the social structures of signification evoked at the festival shape what the extract comes to mean. At stake are questions of genre, disciplinarity, and globalization.

 

Quantity and Quality


Quantifying Entities and Sequencing Events: The Relation between Grade and Aspect in Q’eqchi’-Maya

Paul Kockelman, Yale University (paul.kockelman@yale.edu)

This essay is about the relation between event sequencing and entity quantification. It treats a small set of formally overlapping constructions in Q’eqchi’ (Maya) that serve aspectual and grading functions. These constructions, along with a loose English gloss, are as follows: ak clause (already), toj clause (still), quantity chik (quantity more), wh-word chik (wh-word else), quantity ajwi’ (only quantity), ka’ajwi’ constituent (only constituent), predicate ajwi’ (also), and clause wi’chik (again). As will be seen, each of these constructions has a negative counterpart; many of these constructions combine with the others in unexpected ways; and all of these constructions complement each other in regards to their semantic features, pragmatic functions, and entailment patterns. I argue that such grammatical categories are best understood in terms of the relation between two kinds of entities or events: a relatively figured narrated entity or event (En), and a relatively backgrounded reference entity or event (Er). In particular, En (or its beginning, end, or extent) is ‘positioned’ relative to Er (as before or after, less than or greater than, equal to or simultaneous with); and Er is itself a relatively context-specific ‘point of departure’. This essay thereby synthesizes classic understandings of the relation between grammatical categories, event sequencing, and indexical grounding. And it extends this framework to understand entity quantification. In so doing, this essay shows some deep homologies linking aspect and grade; and it argues for the cross-linguistic relevance of this form-functional linkage. To make these arguments, I use classic ideas on event relations and grammatical categories (Jakobson, Bull and Klein), recent and classic work on grading and aspect (from Sapir to Kennedy), and core ideas in cognitive and functional linguistics. And the analysis itself is empirically grounded in over two years of linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork among speakers of Q’eqchi’-Maya living in the cloud-forests of highland Guatemala.


Semiotic-Anthropological Reflections on Infrastructure, Commensuration, and Equivalence”

Andrew Carruthers, Yale University (andrew.carruthers@yale.edu)

This paper assesses semiotic linkages between infrastructure, commensuration, and equivalence. It argues that equivalence is a kind of semiotic achievement, produced through everyday acts of commensuration that are in turn enabled by infrastructural networks. It evaluates how degrees of equivalence, or “equi-valence,” are established between exemplary yet labile types (Saussurian schema, Peircean legisigns) and instantiations of those types (tokens, or replicas). It argues that acts of commensuration are reflected in spoken communicative interaction by speakers’ use of gradable adjectives, modified by degree adverbials or morphemes in predicative expressions that take domains of qualia as their referential objects. The paper concludes with a discussion of equivalence as a “flexibility-device” (Austin 1962), with which semiotic agents reflexively evaluate or create new kinds of alignments toward prototypes and exemplars to avoid being left high and dry in shifting interactional settings or hazardous terrains. These issues are explored with ethnographic reference to networks of undocumented migration in the Indonesia-Malaysia borderlands of Muslim Southeast Asia, a scene of some of the largest clandestine movements of people and goods in the world.”

 

Protocols and Instruments


Objectivity in Juror Narratives of Decision-Making

Catherine Culver, University of Pennsylvania

This paper explores how criminal court jurors justify their decision-making through appeals to legal modes of reasoning. Drawing on post-trial interviews with jurors, the paper documents the adoption of an enregistered style of (legal) reasoning by jurors in narratives of their decision- making. The circulation of this enregistered style of reasoning that appears in jurors’ narratives is traced through various moments in the trial process in which jurors are explicitly instructed in the application of legal concepts to their deliberations. The paper also addresses the relationship between jurors’ adoption of legal notions of objectivity and their construction of their own agency in the trial process.


Roles of indigenous identities through translating the Organic Law of Intercultural Education in Ecuador

Nicholas Limerick, University of Pennsylvania

This paper considers the perils for directors of Intercultural Bilingual Education in Ecuador of translating the Organic Law of Intercultural Education from a technical register of Spanish to Kichwa. It argues that disagreements about the references of linguistic signs allow directors of EIB to align and disalign with shifting notions of indigeneity. This means that engaging in translation across languages re-works larger debates about indigeneity in contemporary Ecuador. This research is based on over 25 months of ethnographic research.


The Social Life of Orthography Development

Coleman Donaldson, University of Pennsylvania

From a linguistic perspective the development of orthography for a language is often taken as scientific endeavor involving the adoption of a set of graphic conventions for mapping the phonemic system of a language. In this talk I unpack how orthography development and use is necessarily wrapped up in socio-political debates. Approaching orthography graphically, I demonstrate how spelling itself frequently carries implicit metacommentary connected to these debates. Next, looking at orthography’s link with speech I argue that ideologies of language in departmentalized linguistics ignore and obscure the way orthography interacts with register phenomena within a language.

 

Digital Artifacts


The Hashtag as a Semiotic Form

Mariam Durrani, University of Pennsylvania

By juxtaposing the ‘virtual’ with the ‘real’, digital researchers inadvertently created a bifurcation of the digital and the non-digital. The two were considered analytically separate until the work of digital anthropologists who argue that the digital/online worlds are simply another social arena, similar to offline worlds, and that we as ethnographers have no reason to privilege one over another because social life is not more mediated simply because humans are no more cultural than we were before the onslaught of technology (Boelstroff 2008; Horst & Miller, 2012). Along similar lines, online language use and virtual discourse has been studied (Herring, 2013; Tannen & Trester, 2013). In this paper, I hope to extend the work of digital anthropologists and internet language researchers, by focusing on the ‘hashtag’ as a semiotic form. Beyond the denotational information given in a hashtag, such as #newyorkcity for any image/text that refers to New York City, and beyond the searchability function of metadata tags on social media platforms, I hope to delineate some of the semiotic features of different ‘types’ of hashtagging styles, specifically drawing from research with college-aged transnational youth.


“Pills and Potions” / “Lidakwamizwa ne mithi”: Facebook as Corporate Archive

Sarah Neterer, University of Pennsylvania

Scrolling through Facebook one evening, a post caught my attention. Employing ‘deep Zulu’ text instead of the tsotitaal or slang that I am used to seeing on this social media site, I struggled to understand what the post was referencing until I read it aloud: ““Lidakwamizwa ne mithi, siyazbulala, ngkwatile kodwa nagyak’tha’nda #singing,” or “pills and potions, we’re overdosing, I’m angry but I still love you.” These words are the lyrics to, “Pills and Potions,” a song performed by American hip-hop artist Niki Minaj, that discusses the pain in trying to move away from a relationship with someone that still holds your love. Without prior knowledge of this song, the posting seems to reference traditional witch doctors, a stabbing, and anger not repairable with love. However, when the translation is able to be mentally referenced with the song it provides a humorous situation of mistranslation. I screenshotted the page and filed it in my archive of screenshotted Facebook postings. Three months later, I heard “Pills and Potions” on the radio and tried to find the Facebook post. Narrowing down the month when it was posted, I searched my friend’s page in hopes of obtaining it, but the post, deemed unworthy to stay on his page, was no longer publically published. I had to make reference to my archive of screenshotted Facebook postings in order to remember his translation. How can Facebook, a private corporation which stores and analyzes personal data from users across the globe, be used as a digital archive? Taking into account Foucault’s theory of how the archive, “is not simply institution, but rather the law of what can be said, the system of statements, or rules of practice, that give shape to what can and cannot be said,” (Hamilton et al. 2002) how can Facebook be viewed as individual archives; trying to understand cultural norms through creating posts, observing responses, and then either leaving the post for the world to associate with you or deleting it as an act of disassociation with that comment, picture, or link? Does the allowance of complete control over public self-presentation (i.e. choosing to delete postings, only allowing certain photos of oneself to be ‘tagged,’ etc.) disturb the very purpose of an archive to ‘preserve’ the present for the future? How can digital ethnography be ethically completed through Facebook? These questions and more are explored in this paper which theorizes Facebook as a corporate archive through the documentation of digital ethnography on language and music in Soweto, South Africa.


Irony and Power: Youth Media, Teen Code, and Intertextual Play in Late Socialist Vietnam

Tri Phuong, Yale University (tri.phuong@yale.edu)

This paper analyzes popular forms of Vietnamese youth media to show how everyday Vietnamese actors engage in subtle criticism of the government through a genre of playfulness. Drawing on recent examples of satirical music videos and cute manga cartoons, I seek to develop an understanding of how the teen code undercuts dominant discourses of nationalism and identity via polysemous intertextuality. In other words, youth actively deploy irony to unmask and undress power through an Aesopian language that evades state censorship in the digital era. These examples situate “play” as an important form of everyday politics and a driver for political change in the context of late socialist Vietnam.

 

Persons & Groups


Re-Grouping Identity in Chile

Marshall Knudson, University of Pennsylvania

In the last 25 years or so, Chile has seen the emergence, crystallization, and transformations in claims to Mapuche identity, collective and individual. How can this phenomenon of re-grouping, variously described as “re-ethnification” or “ethnonationalism” be reasoned about clearly, given the confusing nomenclature available through the idiom of “ethnicity”, “race”, “nation,” and “indigeneity”. By examining changing semiotic technologies of group-enabling and group-making in the Chilean context, I make a case for the treatment of cultural shifters as the inferential spine for charting group-making processes. In the course of re-groupment, the conditions on group- making become salient, and the re-grouping becomes legible through the changing relations of implication between particular diacritics (behaviors), group formulations (categories of persons, with particular chronotopic horizons) and social domains (groups of people). In academic, activist, and lay accounts of Mapuche identity, I note competing forms of indexical alignment (stance) mediated by the referential patterns of common reflexive formulations of groupness (like ethnicity, race, nation, and indigeneity). I explore some of the dilemmas of Mapuche activism that are intelligible in the patterns of discrepancies between particular speakers in terms of denotational stereotypy and referential prototypy, as inferable from the discursive contests over cultural shifters.


“Sweetness” or “Vulgarity”: Language Purity and The Moral Qualia of Bhojpuri

Katy Hardy, Yale University

In this paper, I consider competing ideologies of language purity through which Bhojpuri and Hindi are articulated into relationships of moral opposition. Since the 19th century movements that established it as a standard language, “pure” Hindi is described as shuddh: stripped of all Farsi, Arabic, and English forms. This purity requires etymologically sophisticated knowledge for the exclusion of non-Indic sounds. “Pure” Bhojpuri, on the other hand, is described as theth, indicating that the speaker has no cosmopolitan contact with languages other than the mother tongue. Theth indexes Bhojpuri’s enregistration as rural, with potentialities for “sweetness” or “vulgarity.” Purity in Hindi is linked to urban education, whereas purity in Bhojpuri is linked to lack of education and lack of mixing. I interrogate these two notions of purity as they motivate North Indian ideas of ruralness of Bhojpuri, the urbanness of Hindi, and the ambivalent moral qualities entailed by “ruralness.”


“I Have a Spanish Friend”: Metadiscursive Talk and Language Ideologies in Dual Language Classrooms

Mark Lewis, University of Pennsylvania

How do young students in bilingual classrooms respond to and participate in ideological constructions of language proficiency and named languages themselves? This paper draws from a longitudinal ethnographic study of 10 students in a K-8 Spanish and English dual language charter school in Philadelphia. As a part of this ongoing project, I investigate how metadiscursive commentary reveals young learners maintaining or resisting language ideologies regarding expertise, speakership, and the sociohistorical construction of named languages. In localized instances of sociolinguistic typification and description, students name and interpret the language practices they and their peers perform. These metapragmatic acts often also function as emergent adoptions of social positions with respect to others in the classroom. While dual language education programs often stress the need to value minoritized languages, a semiotic perspective on ideological talk in this classroom shows the possibilities of many positionings with respect to Spanish that go beyond a simple valuing/not-valuing continuum.


Diacritics of Maya personhood: The De-and Re-Mayanization of Maya Linguists in Yucatan

Catherine Rhodes, University of Pennsylvania

[Abstract Forthcoming]

 

Commerce and Culture


The Iconic Basis of Corporate Profit Making

Greg Urban, University of Pennsylvania

This paper examines corporate profit making from the perspective of cultural motion, and, more specifically, the forces affecting cultural motion. The central argument is that corporations harness or capture existing flows of culture for which interest (rather than, say, inertia) is already a key force. It then sells the captured flow as product for a profit (relying on its capture to provide demand) or tweaks it to produce a slightly new product and thereby stimulate increased interest, converting that increased interest into marginal profit. In either case, the operative semiotic principle is iconicity — create a product that resembles culture (including another product) that is already attracting interest. The paper provides several ethnographic examples to illustrate the operation of iconicity in such corporate profit making.


Pure Cars and Purist Drivers

Ferhan Tunagur, University of Pennsylvania

Among certain groups of car enthusiasts in contemporary US, metapragmatic statements regarding clusters of design features and car-model lineages link systems of tropic kinship chronotopes to car models and thereby to car enthusiasts. Various kinds of metasemiotic narratives reformulate such features, model name taxonomy, and the linked tropic kinship chronotopes into a system of synchronic social positions occupied today by particular car enthusiasts. This paper provides a semiotically informed ethnographic account of one such narrative, namely a narrative of purity and authenticity, in which the chronological organization of self and other reckoning for dating persona features of car enthusiasts is recontextualized and linked to historical imaginaries.


For an Anthropology of Formalism: Semiotic Technologies for Making “the Economy”

Adam Leeds, Duke University

To make the economy into a sociotechnical object requires assembling a massive semiotic technology that covers the national territory, a mediatized installation known as statistics. The statistical system and economic theory have grown together. The categories by which statisticians parse reality and the numbers they generate become inputs to economic theorizing. By such means have the fragmentary, problem-specific streams of numbers generated at or around states at different historical moments become integrated into the apparatus— its components highly interconnected but still in semi-independent tectonic motion—that exists today. Governing the economy means governing by means of the economy, which, as I will describe, means doing so through cascades of numbers and systems of formalisms.