The Third Annual Conference on Semiotic Anthropology, May 5-6, 2016  

2016 CONFERENCE PROGRAM

THURSDAY, May 5


08:30-9:00   Coffee and light breakfast

PANEL: Voice


09:00-9:30

Xenia Cherkev, Harvard University

Rhetoric positioning in a “revolution from the top”

09:30-10:00

Maria Sidorkina, Yale University

Russian trolls: New ideas in post-liberal publicity

10:00-10:30 

Ferhan Tunagur, University of Pennsylvania 

Expertise reconstructed

10:30-11:00 

Paja Faudree, Brown University 

Cyber revival: Indigenous languages and “digital activism” in Mexico

11:00-11:15

Discussant: Asif Agha, University of Pennsylvania

11:15-11:30   Coffee break

11:30-12:00

Lissa Crane, Rutgers University

“Narratives of gendered hardship” and the semiotics of female intimacy in global women’s philanthropy

12:00-12:30

Katherine Culver, University of Pennsylvania 

Making a juror: semiotic calibration and the hailing of jurors in jury selection

12:30-1:00

Marc Perlman, Brown University 

Romantic and anti-romantic ideologies of textuality

1:00-1:15

Discussant: Robert E. Moore, University of Pennsylvania

1:15-2:30   Lunch

PANEL: Music

2:30-3:00

Jamie Corbett, Brown University

Chronotopic idyll and diasporic flexibility in music genres of New England’s Portuguese community

3:00-3:30 

Sarah Neterer, University of Pennsylvania 

Sounding June 16, 1976: Playing with expert registers through entextualized sounds in Soweto uprising narratives

 

3:30-4:00

Dave Fossum, Brown University 

Time and the author: The pragmatics of chronotopic framing in discourse about Turkish musical copyright

4:00-4:30 

Alex Warburton, Harvard University 

Why fry? An account of the mediatized social life of a voice quality

4:30-4:45

Discussant: Greg Urban, University of Pennsylvania

4:45-5:00   Coffee Break 

PANEL: Money

5:00-6:00

Asif Agha, University of Pennsylvania

Money talk and conduct from cowries to bitcoin

6:00-6:30   Open Discussion

6:30   Dinner for conference participants 

FRIDAY, MAY 6

08:30-9:00   Coffee and light breakfast

PANEL: Register

09:00-9:30

Joe Errington, Yale University

Nationalism in an un-native language: tales from two cities

9:30-10:00

Mark Lewis, University of Pennsylvania

Math language and the case of “greater than”: An account of metalinguisic labor in US mathematics education

10:00-10:30

Miranda Weinberg, University of Pennsylvania 

Making textbook Dhimal: Language standardization and creating future indigenous citizens in Nepal

10:30-11:00

Coleman Donaldson, University of Pennsylvania 

Two lungs, indivisible: N’ko practitioners’ engagement with State borders in post-colonial West Africa

11:00-11:15

Discussant: Perry Sherouse, Princeton University 

11:15-11:30    Coffee Break

PANEL: Performance

11:30-12:00

Jacob Stewart-Halevy, Tufts University 

The pragmatics of conceptual art

12:00-12:30

Adrienne Cohen, Yale University 

Powerful signs: Dance as aspirational practice in Conakry, Guinea

12:30-1:00

Derek Sheridan, Brown University 

Ethnography as agency: Speech, sincerity and the politics of everyday knowledge production in Sino-Tanzanian encounters

1:00-1:30

Lauren E. Deal, Brown University 

Metapragmatics, message and performative ideologies of protest

1:30-1:45

Discussant: Paja Faudree, Brown University 

1:45-3:00   Lunch

PANEL: Materiality

3:00-3:30

Paul Kockelman, Yale University

Chatter, scatter, matter 

3:30-4:00

Kyle Olson, University of Pennsylvania

Archaeological Semiotics beyond icons, indexes and symbols: Habits and encounters

4:00-4:30

Kate Riley, Rutgers University 

“Don’t yuck my yum”: Semiotics and the socialization of food ideologies in an elite elementary school

4:30-5:00

Amy Lasater-Willie, New York University 

Creating tastes and tasting creativity: Race and the semiotics of Peruvian cuisine

5:00-5:30

Emily Avera, Brown University 

Post-apartheid hematopoiesis: The semiotics and materiality of blood safety and supply in South Africa

5:30-5:45

Discussant: Stanton Wortham University of Pennsylvania 

5:45-6:15   Open Discussion

 

Abstracts

VOICE

Rhetoric positioning in a “revolution from the top”

Xenia Cherkev, Harvard University

In this paper, I analyze the practical and political effects of rhetorical positioning and suggest two common approaches to analyzing political economy: one concerned with static structures, moralities and grammars, and another concerned with patterns of practices, ethics, and habitual meanings. The difference between these two approaches lies in how they position the speaker rhetorically in relation to the social system they analyze: the former approach writes from a point outside the system, the latter from within. Examining claims about Soviet society and history made by perestroika-era (1986- 1992) Communist Party leaders, I argue that they publicized a popular late-Soviet assumption about everyday practices, and reframed it into a claim about structure: reframed the assumption that circumventing the country’s often irrational rules is ethical if it is done to further community interest into a denouncement of the “stagnant” and oppressive “administer-command” social system as such. Focusing on how this system victimized, rather than also benefited, speakers this narrative reframed a common explanation of how things are done into one about why things are not done. It also shifted speakers’ rhetorical positioning: ethical claims about temporally and institutionally contingent actions spoken from the point of view of practitioners shifted to denouncement of a dominant and changeless system from a position of objective analysis. Such a shift in positioning, I argue, served to both garner support for the reforms and to set them up to be catastrophic: on one hand, it forged an effective political platform, with ewhich people could identify regardless of their social and economic positions, on the other hand, it occluded analysis of how late-Soviet institutions and labor practices developed historically and functioned practically. 

 

Russian trolls: New ideas in post-liberal publicity

Maria Sidorkina, Yale University

“Trolling” has become ubiquitous in descriptions of interactions far removed from the term’s original domain—4chan and similar internet forums. How do activists in Novosibirsk, Russia evaluate the “troll” as a tool for social and political analysis? How and why is this “figure of personhood” identified and made sensible by ordinary Siberian urbanites in the wake of the Fair Elections protests of 2011-2013? How do competent activists, journalists and newsreaders arrive at the position that what someone is doing is “trolling”—and how is the reasoning behind such arrivals occasioned, and displayed? I approach “trolling” without fixing the “troll” as an ideal-type. Rather I take the production of accounts of “trolling” in academic and mainstream media, in Russia and elsewhere, as the topic of my inquiry. 

Expertise reconstructed

Ferhan Tunagur, University of Pennsylvania

This paper explores three aspects of what is traditionally understood as experts and expertise. Using archival and ethnographic data collected among car enthusiasts, it first attends to several actors, institutions, and processes that are typically recognized as the sources that enact (Carr, 2010) expertise. It attends (albeit partially) to the semiotic division of labor through which sign values of expert register tokens are variably sourced (Agha, 2015). Secondly, it explores enthusiast construals through which those sign values are incrementally altered, and emergent metrics arise across chains of activities that link particular car enthusiasts to each other. It pays particular attention to participation frameworks, in which enthusiasts approximate yet to be solidified forms of uptake formulations, and how hybrid register tokens become object-signs under unanticipated metasemiotic frameworks? (Agha 2015) Lastly, it traces the journey of a racecar driver’s mediatized (Agha, 2011) persona shifting from an expert to expert/journalist by demonstrating his competence in recognizing and producing discursive and nondiscursive tokens of enthusiasts’ enregistered metrics of evaluation. The paper concludes by problematizing the presumed powers of expert discourses, such as legitimization, authorization, and most importantly dissemination, and suggests an alternative formulation. 

Cyber revival: Indigenous languages and “digital activism” in Mexico

Paja Faudree, Brown University

Not long ago, a dominant narrative about globalization and the rise of the Internet was that it would lead to linguistic consolidation – with grave implications for “minority” languages. But while thousands of languages remain at risk of disappearing in coming decades, digital technologies have transformed the world’s linguistic landscape in unpredictable ways. For one thing, marginalized speakers around the world have found innovative ways of using digital and online media to revitalize their languages and give them new everyday utility. I will discuss how these new forms of “digital activism” being promoted by indigenous Mexicans are revolutionizing the country’s language politics. I show how these new digital projects depart from older forms of linguistic activism. I then discuss how these opposed ways of engaging with indigenous languages implicate distinct imaginings about how indigenous peoples and the languages they speak might take part in national and global frameworks of belonging. 

 

“Narratives of gendered hardship” and the semiotics of female intimacy in global women’s philanthropy

Lissa Crane, Rutgers University

I propose that emotional intimacy between donors and recipients in global feminist philanthropy is both indexed and performed through sharing what I call “narratives of gendered hardship.” I argue that narratives of gendered hardship are understood to be “private” forms of speech, which indexes the closeness of two women chatting in private. The sharing of these narratives also “performs” intimacy, in J.L. Austin’s sense, because the narratives can create an intimate social bond as they are spoken. These narratives of gendered hardship have now come to be expected as an integral part of the grantmaking relationship. In fact, they are part of the “semiotic economy” of the philanthropic realm, and can be converted into material goods. Though valued for reasons aside from their referential function, there is still an expectation of “authenticity” in these accounts, which becomes a site of anxiety for donors who worry that they are being manipulated by grantees. 

 

Making a juror: semiotic calibration and the hailing of jurors in jury selection

Katherine Culver, University of Pennsylvania

While juries are often viewed as an inscrutable ‘black box’ due to the unreviewability of their decisions and the secrecy of their deliberations, I argue that we can understand something of jurors’ decision- making behavior by examining how jurors are produced through a series of communicative encounters. In this paper, I trace specifically how jurors (in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas) are ‘hailed’ by elements of the jury selection process, particularly the Juror Information Questionnaire, a form prospective jurors complete before being questioned individually by a judge. I consider the jury selection process as merely one segment in a larger semiotic chain, and I thus attend to how these elements of the jury selection process are semiotically calibrated to potential jurors’ prior understandings of the jury process. Attention to these semiotic calibrations also sheds light on the fact that the production of jurors through jury selection is, crucially, a process of mediatized *mass* production. 

 

Romantic and Anti-Romantic Ideologies of Textuality

Marc Perlman, Brown University

If language ideology is a set of taken-for-granted postulates about the nature of language varieties and language users, the purposes of language and the ways it achieves them, then we could speak likewise of the ideology of textuality: assumptions about the nature of texts and how they are made, about the identities and characteristics of authors and audiences, criteria for the evaluation and interpretation of texts, and so on. Some ideological attributes attach to only certain texts (e.g. the Bible as the inerrant word of God, canonical literary masterpieces as inexhaustible sources of delight, etc.). But some ideological assumptions cover all texts (or large categories of them). Perhaps the most familiar ones concern expressive works. For example, there are standards concerning proper and improper ways of understanding and appreciating texts: Are the author’s intentions relevant? Is it enough to absorb the content, or must one attend to the form as well? Recently anthropologists have identified a set of assumptions about the creation of texts, often referred to as a “Romantic” ideology, according to which texts are produced by a process of “solitary, ex nihilo creation” performed by “highly exceptional and gifted individuals” (Wilf 2014:398). Said to be consistent with modern Western values of individualism, its exclusive focus on the isolated author blinds us to the “social dimensions of creativity.” Most recently, this Romantic ideology buttresses the neoliberal dispensation, which portrays work conditions of ever-increasing risk, uncertainty, and precarity as an open field on which unfettered creativity can blossom. What has not been noted is that there is also a corresponding anti-Romantic ideology which emphatically minimizes the role of the individual creator. This has taken various forms over the centuries, from the Medieval doctrine that God alone has the power of creation, to post-structuralist intertextuality which regards each work as the intersection of pre-existing texts. I trace some of the adventures of this anti-Romantic ideology. It has been presented sometimes as a theory of modern, avant-garde textual production, sometimes as a description of the inherent nature of all texts. It has been portrayed as a historical revenant, the default mode of premodern creativity that had been submerged by industrial civilization but now returns triumphant. It has been allied to ideologies of technological determinism, linked to hypertext and digital sampling. And it has been racialized, as when African-American “signifyin(g)” is described as intertextual, or hip-hop production is claimed as a critique of the ownership of sound. Anti-Romantic textual ideology became widely visible in debates over celebrated cases of literary plagiarism, among educators worried about the threat of a “cut and paste” generation of students, and in intellectual property law. The latter part of the 20th century saw a rising chorus of jurisprudential criticism, faulting copyright law for clinging to an “outdated” Romantic ideology. Starting in the circles of legal scholarship, it spread to a wider group of activists and technorati. I analyze this debate, showing how both Romantic and anti-Romantic ideologies function in normative argumentation. I suggest that they serve a mystifying function, disguising a preferred policy choice—i.e. a political choice—as an inevitable consequence of the essential nature of textual creativity. 

MUSIC

Chronotopic idyll and diasporic flexibility in music genres of New England’s Portuguese community

Jamie Corbett, Brown University

How do time and space manifest as diasporic registers across musical genres? Focusing on New England’s Azorean community, I take up chronotopes (Bakhtin 1981) in musical texts to foreground the imagination of a past homeland that, by virtue of the performance of the Portuguese pimba and Brazilian sertanejo, includes not only Portugal, but a broader global diaspora. Based on fieldwork conducted with three musical groups during the Catholic feast season from June to October in Providence, Cumberland, RI, and Fall River, MA, the paper explores community members’ performances of a rural, agrarian idylls of pre-emigration that cross-cut and transcend the limits of musical genre. While asking how the temporal structure of the Catholic feast event impacts such performances of the past agrarian idyll, I tease apart the anxieties of contrasting urban and rural realities in musical texts (Dent 2007, 2009) and the enregisterment (Agha 2005) of chronotopes across musical genres of one of New England’s most emblematic immigrant communities 

 

Sounding June 16, 1976: Playing with expert registers through entextualized sounds in Soweto uprising narratives

Sarah Neterer, University of Pennsylvania

The Soweto Uprising’ is an event which is documented in historical texts as occurring on June 16, 1976. Schoolchildren silently protested being taught in Afrikaans and were met with police troops opening fire upon them. National and international white popular medial portrayals of the ‘uprising’ were drawn upon in historiographic texts which then became an expert register for telling Soweto’s important historical event. The widespread recognition of historic text as an expert register is evidenced in the emergence of a number of oral histories about June 16th in the early 21st century, which were trying to include other registers of speaking about the uprising in its history. Prior to this, however, a number of men began re-writing the stories that were being told about this day in expert register through the only mediums politically and viably accessible to them; novels, plays, poetry and music. They use sounds entextualized in historic and primary texts which had become indexical of the Uprising to expand the emerging concept of the ‘urprising’ from a day that came and passed, to a period of politicized time leading up to June 16th and lasting until the end of Apartheid, the end of which they had not yet seen upon releasing these productions. In this paper I examine the ways in which the expert register of the Soweto Uprising, that found in historic texts, entextualizes sound, and in turn how two novelists use these entextualized sounds in order to portray a different story from that found in the standard historical text. Doing so opens the opportunity for hearing voices that are politically repressed but still speaking through referential playing with expert registers. 

 

Time and the author: The pragmatics of chronotopic framing in discourse about Turkish musical copyright

Dave Fossum, Brown University 

This paper on intellectual property administration in Turkey builds on recent linguistic anthropological extensions of Bakhtin’s (1981) concept of chronotope, aiming in particular to bring into sharper relief the political stakes at play when chronotopes are invoked in discourse about modernization and reform. I show how interested actors engaged in discourse about two different aspects of Turkey’s music industry tend to understand the intellectual property regime through two different sets of opposed and morally valenced spatio-temporal frames. In one type of discourse, advocates for increasing the scope and effectiveness of copyright administration are pitted against those who resist having to buy into or help improve the system. One rhetorical strategy the advocates take is to idealize “developed” countries, where civilized citizens respect sacred human rights (including authors’ rights), and there is rule of law. Temporally, this idealized space is set in the present in places like continental Europe, but in the potential future for Turkey. Users of copyrighted material who resist buying in to the legal system of intellectual property administration are blamed for causing Turkey to exist in a spatio-temporal frame of backwardness, where people bend the rules, undermine the rule of law, and engage in thuggery and piracy to get their way at the expense of others’ rights. Meanwhile, a second discursive territory surrounds the musical public domain, and anonymous folk music in particular. Folklore theory posits a chronotope of “the folk,” who live in a rural space, and who create music “unconsciously” and without concern for individual ownership or commercial profit. But alarmists describe how with the rise of copyright, corrupt individuals began claiming rights to such anonymous works and earning unjust royalties from them. Furthermore, in this post-copyright, fallen spatio-temporal realm, rural musicians have an individual, authorial consciousness and a concern for ownership and commercial profit where they previously didn’t. In this paper, I show how these two, apparently disarticulated chronotopic contrasts both hinge on a set of shared assumptions about modernity, human agency, and and the transformative power of markets. Furthermore, I emphasize how chronotopic frames can be invoked for pragmatic effects such as recruiting interlocutors into policy regimes. 

 

Why fry? An account of the mediatized social life of a voice quality

Alex Warburton, Harvard University

“That low crack when I sing is my choice, / but my E.N.T. doesn’t rejoice. / I end phrases real low, / where my cords shouldn’t go. / I’m so cool that I’m hurting my voice.” (Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me 2011). / How does a relatively minor linguistic phenomenon become the humorous topic of a popular nationally syndicated radio show? The above limerick encapsulates many of the now-widespread characterizations of what the radio show called ‘vocal fry’ (“that low crack”) in American English: that it is prominent in singing; that it is ‘low’ in pitch, that it is ‘unnatural’ for the vocal chords; that it is ‘cool’; and that it is ‘harmful’ to the voice. In this paper I explore how and why such a vocal feature came to be recognized and mobilized in national media outlets. I try to tease apart the tangled ways that some ‘thing’ that shares no single acoustic or articulatory property (Keating et al. 2015, Khan et al. 2015) comes to “hang together” (Mol 2002) as an object of cultural reflection. By examining the work of language experts and news reportage in creating a ‘fad’ that spreads through a logic of contagion, often crossing into the literal and pathological, I argue that the swift popularization and breathless accounts of ‘vocal fry’ (primarily called ‘creaky voice’ by linguists) are mainly due to encounters with voices and bodies that come up against deeply entrenched western and specifically American ideologies of gender and dis/embodied verbal communication. 

MONEY

Money talk and conduct from cowries to bitcoin

Asif Agha, University of Pennsylvania

What role do forms of money play in social life? What kinds of sociocultural variation do they exhibit? What variety of things do people do with varieties of money? How are activities involving money differentiated into registers of money-conduct in specific times and places? How are specific forms of money-conduct recognized and differentiated from other cultural routines by those who encounter them? It has long been understood that money is intimately linked to varied forms of discursive semiosis (whether oral, written, numerical, algorithmic, customary, or law-based; whether manifest as fiscal policy, computer code, or common sense) through which distinct forms of money are created and endowed with distinct use characteristics; that specific forms of money are readily linked to (or appropriated by) group-specific interests or ideologies; and that differences in types of money-conduct readily differentiate social roles and relationships among persons and groups in social history. Yet the role of discursive semiosis in the existence and use of money is not well understood, a lacuna that links most descriptions of “money” to voicing structures (or discursive positionalities) that are not grasped for what they are by those who offer such descriptions (e.g., “speaking like the State” without knowing it). The paper clarifies the role of discursive semiosis in the social life of money. It shows that such clarification is a prerequisite on ethnographic answers to the questions listed at the beginning of this abstract. It presents a comparative framework for reasoning about forms of money in forms of life. 

REGISTER

Nationalism in an un-native language: tales from two cities

Joe Errington, Yale University

Because standard Indonesian has no native speaking exemplars, Indonesian usage is shaped by indefinitely many ‘ethnic’ speech habits. As the language of national modernity it is bound up with the development of rapidly expanding, heteroglot urban milieux. This paper would sketch Indonesian in usage role among educated speakers who are effectively erasing ethnic difference in one town, and commensurating it in another. Time permitting, this contrast could be linked to these towns’ geosocial locations within their respective regions and the nation. In Kupang, at the country’s southeast periphery, forms of standard Indonesian are being incorporated into a structurally distinct, post-creole dialect of Malay. This Malay dialect is being koineized at the same time that educated newcomers to Kupang from surrounding regions acquire it. The upshot is a nonstandard urban idiom that is covertly prestigious in the city and elsewhere in the province, Nusa Tenggara Tengah. Here Indonesian is figuring into the distinctive language of Kupang’s provincial cosmopolitans. Pontianak is capital of West Kalimantan, where ethnopolitical violence has deep historical roots. Its primary vernacular is another dialect of Malay closely associated with the region’s formerly dominant Malay ethnic group. Now a few features of that dialect are being incorporated into everyday ‘Indonesian’ usage by non-Malays, reenregistering it as informal/urban rather than standard/national. Educated Malays, for their part, are avoiding other ‘Malay’ features as class-linked diacritics of “backwardness.” This convergent vernacular is a means for speakers to commensurate linguistic distinctions of ethnicity and urban-ness. Both of these sociolinguistic dynamics are emblematic of relations between these towns and their provinces. The emergence of Kupang’s vernacular can be linked to the distinctness of its province–economic, geographic, religious–within Indonesia as a whole. Calibrations of Indonesian and Malay in Pontianak, on the other hand, is emblematic of the town’s emerging geosocial role as a point of engagement between (qualified) representatives of the province’s ethnic constituencies. This broader contrast could be framed in terms of Appadurai’s observations about (2010) the role of circulating forms (here of a national language) in negotiated senses of locality (urban/national).

Math language and the case of “greater than”: An account of metalinguisic labor in US mathematics education 

Mark Lewis, University of Pennsylvania

Metalinguistic labor (Carr, 2011) is work that that “protects, patrols, and produces […] highly naturalized assumptions about language” (p. 125). Given the reflexive organization of communication, metalinguistic labor of one form or another is ubiquitous (Agha, 2007a; Lucy, 1993; Rymes, 2014; Silverstein, 1993), but schools have a special relationship to metalinguistic labor: they are acutely affected by metalinguistic labor but also mass producers of it. Metalinguistic labor in schooling involves (a) identification of desired discourse appropriate to some school-related end, and (b) the assessment of how a sample of discourse—produced by a student—matches the desired product. I present ‘math language’ as an example of a continually typified and highly managed speech register involved in schooling and trace aspects of its development in the last 100 years or so in the United States. From this perspective, both professional debates about the proper use of “standard mathematical terminology” and classroom instruction about the meaning of the symbol > are segments of metalinguistic labor on an objectified ‘math language.’ By applying a semiotically informed model to schooling and specifically to math language, I hope to accomplish three goals: (a) to highlight the complexity of schooling from the point of view of metalinguistic labor, (b) to suggest that applying these frameworks to schools offers a chance to stretch and test still developing models of how people negotiate their sociolinguistic contexts, and (c) to explore possibilities for charting the pedagogically relevant (and perhaps unintended) effects of infrastructures of metalinguistic labor that surround the work of teaching. 

 

Making textbook Dhimal: Language standardization and creating future indigenous citizens in Nepal

Miranda Weinberg, University of Pennsylvania

I plan to talk about the ways that conflict over the creation of textbooks of the Dhimal language for Nepali schools illustrates an attempt to create models of the future speakers of the language, particularly with relation to the Nepali state and emblems of indigeneity. 

Two lungs, indivisible: N’ko practitioners’ engagement with State borders in post-colonial West Africa

Coleman Donaldson, University of Pennsylvania

Stemming from a non-Latin-, non-Arabic-based script invented in 1949, the N’ko literacy movement of West Africa seemingly rethinks post-colonial borders via its unique language policy meant to unify Manding speakers across a linguistic continuum spanning at least seven countries. The botched coup and Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 however has both provoked and thrown into relief other types of engagement within N’ko circles. Drawing on research conducted in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso in 2013, this talk investigates the range of ways that N’ko students, scholars and activists both question and embrace the legitimacy of post-colonial West African State borders. 

PERFORMANCE

The pragmatics of conceptual art

Jacob Stewart-Halevy, Tufts University 

My talk looks at the affinities between a group of New-York based “conceptual” artists at the turn of the 1970s and the emergence of communicative pragmatics over the same period. Beyond a shared interest in stranger sociability and the recording of day to-day activities, artists and communication theorists resolved nagging issues presented by Structuralism within their respective fields; namely, how to treat rule-governed parameters for behavior without placing those parameters outside or prior to actually occurring social interactions. Just as ethnographic social theory at that time found order from below—from the practices of the members it studied—conceptual artists of the period sought out local ways of glossing routine behavior rather than relying on the bureaucratic styles of interviews, reportage, and statistical analysis used by the rest of the conceptual art movement. Like ethnomethodology and conversational analysis, therefore, conceptual artists embraced a model where social order was self-generated. My talk outlines some of their projects. Insofar as they often involved negligent methods of participant observation, they suggest alternative approaches to ethnographic research. 

 

Powerful signs: Dance as aspirational practice in Conakry, Guinea

Adrienne Cohen, Yale University

This paper examines dance in urban Guinea as an aspirational practice of modernity, which is at once an act of poetic world-making and a form of embodied investment for young practitioners. The paper focuses on a popular dance in Conakry called Dundunba, which traditionally signifies power and strength. This dance, I argue, is part of a broader semiotic phenomenon by which young performers mobilize idioms of power and rurality in the creation of contemporary urban sociality. In Guinea, where dance was deeply informed by socialist cultural policy and a hopeful Marxist-modern narrative in the 1960s and 70s, contemporary dance lexicons reveal complex negotiations with the failed promises of that era. The performances of power young urban dancers engage through Dundunba iconically and indexically reconfigure idioms from the past in ways that open the future to new possibilities. 

Ethnography as agency: Speech, sincerity and the politics of everyday knowledge production in Sino-Tanzanian encounters

Derek Sheridan, Brown University

In the past ten years, the rapid development of Sino-African trade and investment has generated an uneven global field of knowledge production about “China-in-Africa.” It is a field whose topography has been shaped by two, mutually-constituted, narrative poles: “Western” narratives of Chinese “neo- colonialism” on one side, and “Chinese” narratives of “Sino-African Cooperation” on the other. In addition, it is a field whose entry has been preceded by persistent myths and hyperbole concerning both the scale and quality of Sino-African relationships. If the raison d’etre of most China-Africa scholars has been the positivist-empiricist enterprise of “mythbusting,” anthropologists are among those best positioned to look not for a “real story,” but to study myths and hyperbole themselves for what they tell us about the historical, cultural and ethical evaluation of these relationships. Nonetheless, ethnography also produces propositional statements about the world, a “real story,” over whose interpretants anthropologists have limited control. In this paper, I examine the politics of knowledge production about “China-in-Africa” in the context of Sino-Tanzanian interactions in Dar-es- Salaam, Tanzania. Based on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork among Chinese migrant entrepreneurs and their Tanzanian associates, I explore how everyday Chinese and Tanzanian claims about the facts and quality of Sino-African relations are produced, validated, legitimated and policed in different social, political and academic research contexts. Drawing on Kockelman’s framework for studying agency (2007), I examine how social action and representations of these actions are managed in a context where the maintenance of “China’s image” in Africa connects geopolitics to the quotidian. In particular, I focus on two kinds of everyday discourse, ordinary hyperbole and complaint, and their use as ethnographic data. Rumors and myths about “China-in-Africa,” at the same they are being debunked by scholars, are being circulated by Chinese and Tanzanians “on the ground” themselves, where they occasionally open spaces for the ethical evaluation of both actually-existing and speculative forms of Chinese presence. Discourses of discontent and complaint among Chinese expatriates about their experience in Tanzania, on the other hand, challenge Chinese state discourses which celebrate Sino-African ties, but their delivery is policed according to notions of social propriety. How one talks about their experiences is used to rank people as having higher or lesser “quality” in Chinese hierarchies of value. Both forms of discourse pose questions for ethnography as a genre increasingly being called upon by China-Africa scholars to illustrate the “agency” of ordinary African and Chinese actors. 

 

Metapragmatics, message and performative ideologies of protest

Lauren E. Deal, Brown University

How can an act of protest that does not have a denotational message as such nevertheless be efficaciously heard as protest? This paper examines an ethnographic account from a protest demonstration by the Sikuris (Andean Panpipers) of Buenos Aires, Argentina that occurred on August 2, 2015 in order to explore the theoretical implications of non-denotational message for understanding performative ideologies of protest. It argues that though the Sikuris had entextualized (Bauman and Briggs 1990) their protest performance genre as a repertoire for collective claim-making (Tilly 2006), the Government of the City of Buenos Aires was able to throw the legibility of their action into question by offering an alternative interpretive framework. The paper centers on two flyers, the Sikuris’s and the City’s, that offer competing metapragmatic framings (Silverstein 1993, Urban 2006) for interpreting the Sikuris’s protest and an ethnographic account of the Sikuris’s response to the GCBA’s flyer and ultimate decision to “march anyway”. I explore how, though actors may produce stable forms, or repertoires, of protest, to be successfully recognizable as protest depends on the successful uptake of metapragmatic framings by which audience expectations and participant frameworks are managed. 

MATERIALITY

Chatter, scatter, matter

Paul Kockelman, Yale University

I show the broad similarities underlying dream interpretation (Freud), ostensive-inferential communication (Grice), and the ways physicists render the real through scattering experiments. I discuss the stakes of these similarities for a broader theory of meaning and materiality. 

Archaeological Semiotics beyond icons, indexes and symbols: Habits and encounters

Kyle Olson, University of Pennsylvania

For too long, the application of Peircean semiotics to archaeology has followed the template of presenting a standard archaeological case study, appending a terminological discussion of Peirce’s sign typology, and triumphantly announcing the discovery of an icon, index, or symbol. What these approaches lack is an appropriate attention to the parameters of the semiotic encounter and an inability to account for how regularities of sign-function, and more importantly, sign-interpretation, sediment themselves in social life. This paper therefore presents a case study which illustrates how Peircean semiotics may be used to hypothesize about how, under what circumstances, and by whom objects were used and became meaningful in the past. 

“Don’t yuck my yum”: Semiotics and the socialization of food ideologies in an elite elementary school

Kate Riley, Rutgers University

Talk around food is about more than just food because food talks, and talk is sustaining (or so we think…). Put another way, referential talk about foodways (taste, nutrients, moral goodness, political correctness…) also performatively indexes (reflecting and constructing) a range of sociocultural ideologies and identities. Given the resulting iconic associations, the social interactions that happen in the vicinity of food (gardening, cooking, vending, serving, eating, and composting it) shape the foodways and food ideologies of those engaged in these food-and-talk events. A “common sense” reading of these food-and-language relationships has led school food change movement advocates to believe that providing nutritious food and nutritious food education at schools will simultaneously nurture children’s minds with “healthy food” while also pedagogically feeding them the “good” food habits and values that may just save the world. Based on a two-year ethnographic study of food-and- language socialization at an elite elementary school in NYC, this paper explores the semiotic processes at work when intelligent, well-meaning individuals attempt to improve a school community’s “food choices” in ways that reek of neoliberal food-and-language ideologies. 

Creating tastes and tasting creativity: Race and the semiotics of Peruvian cuisine

Amy Lasater-Willie, New York University

In this paper, based on participant observation in two mid-priced culinary schools in Lima, I analyze the processes by which Peruvian culinary students’ senses of taste are transformed in the context of a phenomenon known locally as the “gastronomy boom.” Drawing on the concept of linguistic style, I show that local ideologies of taste have long allowed cooking to be both an index of race and a substance through which racial difference is instantiated. I then show that socializing students to produce a new, “creative” cuisine – cuisine built on violating expectations about how culinary features should co-occur — encourages students to think of themselves and their foods as commodities rather than representatives of race or region. As such, the practice of a “creative” cooking style semiotically links Peruvian hopes for greater intercultural understanding and hopes for the country’s economic development to the embodied and sensorial practices of individual culinary students 

 

Post-apartheid hematopoiesis: The semiotics and materiality of blood safety and supply in South Africa

Emily Avera, Brown University

The symbolic and material dimensions of blood have made it an object of extensive study in the social science literature. But much of this work does not actively engage with linguistic anthropological approaches nor does it closely attend to hematological knowledge of the biological processes involved in transfusion, the composition of blood products, or hematopoiesis (the intracorporeal production of blood cells). This paper aims to highlight these underutilized dimensions in the social analysis of blood, combined with a close reading of the biomedical science and its implementation in safety and securitization. I focus on South Africa as an illuminating case. The end of Apartheid in the country signaled a transition to democracy, globally celebrated for its nonviolent, bloodless transfer of power. However, the rise of the HIV epidemic soon thereafter highlighted persistent societal fissures and generated fears of the infectious agents that might be coursing within the South African blood supply. In the late 1990’s, the South African response to HIV was generally poor, yet the epidemic galvanized the development of a noteworthy hemovigilance system—one of the most stringent in the world. Hemovigilance surveils the blood supply chain at every link, monitoring the uses and effects of blood products in order to ensure safety and prevent adverse transfusion incidents. Recognizing the need for safe blood as a “national resource,” in 1999 the leaders of South Africa’s blood services adopted strict hemovigilance to halt transfusion-related HIV transmission. Up until public backlash in 2005, the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) marked blacks as a “high risk” group due to high HIV prevalence rates. Since then, there has been a shift in blood service rhetoric, which instead emphasizes active inclusion and racial diversity of donors apropos of post-apartheid political exigencies. Experts now argue that the present situation of a predominantly white and aging donor pool is “unsustainable” (Muthivhi et al. 2015), raising concerns about who contributes to a secure blood supply and who benefits from its distribution. This paper examines these shifting semiotics of blood safety and sustainability and its political economy in the South African context. Focusing on this case provides a means to examine racialization, operations of inequality, and structures of intense securitization which are all concentrated in hemovigilance policy and practice.