The Seventh Annual Conference on Semiotic Anthropology May 28-30, 2021 online.
2021 CONFERENCE PROGRAM
All listed times are Eastern Daylight Time. You can click the panel title for the corresponding abstracts.
FRIDAY, MAY 28TH
PANEL 1: ENREGISTERMENT AND TROPIC REANALYSIS (9:00-11:20)
Luke Fleming and Nimasha Malalasekera
Université de Montréal
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
11:20-1:00 LUNCH BREAK
PANEL 2: THEORIES AND THINGS (1:00-2:55)
Carter E. Timon
University of Pennsylvania
Chen, Chuan Hao
University of Pennsylvania
SATURDAY, MAY 29TH
PANEL 3: SOUND, IMAGE, AND SOCIAL KINDS (9:00-11:20)
Siv B. Lie
U of Maryland, College Park
Juliet Pascal Glazer
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
11:20-1:00 LUNCH BREAK
PANEL 4: RESURGENCE AND ALTERITY (1:00-3:20)
University of Louisville
Kirtana Dasa (Kirt) Mausert
University of Pennsylvania
Stephanie V. Love
PANEL 5: EMBLEMATIC PARTITIONS (3:40:6:00)
Mallory E. Matsumoto
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
6:30-8:00 HAPPY HOURS @ GATHER.TOWN
SUNDAY, MAY 30TH
PANEL 6: FORMS OF INDEXICALITY (9:00-10:55)
Stuart Earle Strange
National U of Singapore
University of Pennsylvania
10:55-1:00 LUNCH BREAK
PANEL 7: MEDIATIZATION AND MEDIATION (1:00-3:20)
Andy Zhenzhou Tan
Hankuk U of Foreign Studies
University of Pennsylvania
2021 Conference Abstracts
List of panels
Panel 1: Enregisterment and Tropic Reanalysis (Friday 9:00-11:20)
Luke Fleming & N. Malalasekera (Université de Montréal)
Speaking the Sangha: Ontological difference and restricted honorification in Sinhala
Among Sinhala speaking Theravada Buddhists, a small referent-focal repertoire of honorific words is employed to index deference towards clergy (or sangha). Called shasanika wachana (‘words of the sangha’), this honorific register is standardized and diffused through monastic institutions like piriwena (monastic schools) and daham pasala (Buddhist Sunday schools), as well as through public and private schools with a Buddhist background. In this paper we argue that the normative restriction on the use of Sinhala lexical honorifics to discourse contexts where the speaker makes reference to the person, possessions, and actions of monks, effectively reflects and reproduces sociocultural ideologies of karmically-anchored ontological difference proper to the Theravadin “Great Tradition.” Useful here is the distinction between nibannic Buddhism, aimed at enlightenment (mostly practiced by monks) and kammatic Buddhism, geared towards accruing ‘merit’ (Sinhala pin; Burmese kutho) and which is practiced by laypersons (Spiro 1982). Because expunging karma and ending the cycle of rebirth is the ultimate soteriological goal of Theravada Buddhism, the inclination and opportunity to participate in the monastic tradition is itself interpreted as an index of an auspicious birth. Members of the sangha are distinguished from laity not simply by their socially determined statuses but by embodied karmic histories of rebirth. The use of honorific language by laypersons (gihiya) at once acknowledges this discrete ontological distinction between clergy and commoner while also — through iconic-indexical enactments of respect for elements of the Triple Gem (i.e., the Buddha, the dhamma [‘teachings’], and the sangha) of the kind that are central to monastic practice — aspirationally orienting lay practice in the direction of enlightenment. This final dimension is underscored by the tropic use of honorific vocabulary by upasaka maniyo in self-reference during their activities on temple grounds on poya, the oncemonthly continuous night-and-day period of sustained collective prayer at Buddhist temples. Some of the most devout members of the laity, these upasaka maniyo (who are mostly older women) adopt – during this ritual period of fasting and praying – a subset of the precepts (atasil) which are definitional of the monastic life. Far from blasphemous, their extension of honorific vocabulary in self-reference during this time can be understood in terms of a broader logic of iconic-indexical approximation to, and fleeting participation in the monastic form of life.
Aliyah Bixby-Driesen (University of Pennsylvania)
Imperial Deixis and Chronotopic Realisms: Ancient Chinese in Contemporary China
According to standard linguistic histories, classical Chinese (wenyanwen) was vanquished in the vernacularization movement of the early 20th century. In this process of historical enregisterment, an opposition between modern and classical Chinese was established which cast classical Chinese as antiquated, backward-looking, and “dead” and therefore inadequate for modern life. But wenyanwen has persisted – as a set of lexico-grammatical features and as a differentiated register – long past its presumed demise. This paper examines the use of wenyanwen in Chinese period dramas and their literary counterparts. By analyzing one such television show, and comparing it to the web novel upon which it was based, I identify what I call “imperial deixis,” a system of linguistic reference oriented around the person of the Emperor. Through comparison with historical examples, I show how this “dead language” has continued to change over time even as it evokes a world that no longer exists. Finally, I reflect upon how the deployment of this register helps to regiment the relationship between the depicted fictional world and the world of the audience through an implicit metapragmatics of realism.
Xiao Ke (University of Pennsylvania)
Love-style in Amdo Tibetan Environmental Conservation
In the past decade, environmental conservation calls (‘bod skad) within the Tibetan community have drawn on the theme of ‘love’ (dga’, gces, or byams), recruiting metaphors from mother-child, friends, to lovers. From the perspective of indigenous cosmopolitics, we can say, ‘love’ as a concept has magically eliminated certain ‘physicallaw’ propositions centered around ‘science’ and ‘species’ in environmental conservation, and thereby admits more possible worlds in professional conservation, to which indigenous people have privileged access. From data gathered from fieldwork and social media, I argue that this process relies on the invention of a coherent and coordinated love-style. This love-style is constituted by a set of coherent semiosis including speech, behaviors, certain gestures, facial expressions, hands, back, apparels, personal trajectory narratives, wildlife photographic work, proximity with animals, and so on. I show how this love-style – iconically co-motivated via indigeneity – is able to facilitate grassroots Tibetans’ participation, mobilize Chinese liberals’ political alignment, as well as regiment local Tibetans’ role in the moneyed and gate-kept field of environmental conservation in China’s Tibet. I argue that this love-style tropes on other socio-historical stereotypes of Buddhist compassion, Tibetan nomads’ perseverance, urban hygiene, and Chinese state’s lack of sincerity in its money-spending. I also reanalyze Lauren Berlant’s (2001, 2012) visionary formulation of queer ‘love’ in semiotic and semantic terms – contrasting the moneyed-style of ‘affective labor’ – as a potentially felicitous style in capitalist and hegemonic political bargaining.
Félix Danos (Université Paris-Nantearre)
The sight of an old sharecropper: glasses, old age, blurriness and clarity in embodied discourse about stigmatized registers in rural France.
In many areas of rural France older people from peasant backgrounds were brought up using linguistic registers named “Patois” by users and other locals, and still use them with family and friends on a daily basis. One common trope for people in these (former) non-French Romancespeaking communities in France is to qualify the local stigmatized register as “skinned French” (français écorché). While this hierarchizes Patois with regards to (Standard) French, it also recognizes it as something like a dialect of French, which is not backed by academic linguistic evidence, but nevertheless supposes for speakers a strong link with the national standard.Furthermore, the idea that “each village had [or has] its patois” is extremely common all over France, to the extent that it could be understood as a part of the national linguistic ideology. Indeed this is grounded on the idea that in the same way that the national territory of the French Republic can be one and undivisible, its subsections are homogeneous little nations, with their own homogeneous languages (Thiesse, 1997). Drawing on ethnographic work conducted in the Bourbon Mountains area at the very North of the Massif Central mountain range, and in the Southeast of the Allier département (district) of central France, this talk will focus on processes of enregisterment (Silverstein 2003, Agha 2007) at work during a class-like informal conversation in and about Patois between two retired ladies from a sharecropping background in their eighties and a much younger researcher (me) with an urban upper middleclass upbringing. When one of my two interlocutors blames her glasses for making her misread numbers in her agenda, the conversation turns to the way glasses should be named. Disagreement on the way to adequately pronounce the word for glasses in Patois leads to the contrastive qualification of people who use the different pronunciations, along an axis of differentiation (Gal & Irvine, 2019), and through explicitly naming the stereotypical category “the old ones”. I argue that relations to the object glasses and their affordance for seeing clearly hold a central place in the physical embodiment of this axis, & of scaled chronotopic (Bakhtin, 1981; Agha 2005) enregistered subjective positionings within a Patois/French and older/younger continuum, and hence within or rather at the margins of – a modern French linguistic ideology.
Lauren Deal (Brown University)
“I walk with my feet”: Ideologies of Colonialism & Linguistic Purism in Quechua Language Learning”
In this paper, I examine the ways that Quechua language is positioned and understood as a source of “pre-colonial” knowledge with transformative, decolonial potential by Indigenous language learners in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Through an analysis of classroom language practices, metalanguage, and ideologies of linguistic purism, it will consider how two variants of Quechua — one influenced by the Academia Mayor de Quecha of Cuzco, Peru and another spoken in the Argentine province of Santiago del Estero — are differentially evaluated as more or less colonized by intercultural language learners and instructors. I reveal how participants understand the value of these languages to sit in their ability to provide a window into an alternate worldview that is uninfluenced by Western European cultural hegemony. I will also illustrate how the two variants are pitted against one another as ideologies of linguistic purism are tied to understandings of decolonial potential.
Panel 2: Theories and Things
Paul Kockelman (Yale University)
On the Existence and Allure of Possible Worlds
This talk offers a brief history of anthropology’s recent fetishization of possible worlds. It focuses on the ways that Heideggerian and Carnapian understandings of such entities have been misunderstood and poorly deployed. And it analyzes the grotesque ways the discipline’s uptake of this concept resonates with core ideas in expected utility theory and the financialization of self and society.
Carter E. Timon (University of Pennsylvania)
The Semiotic Vista: Views That Mean Meaning
Throughout life, one may witness grand views, scenes accompanied by intense affect and a sense of awe or wonder. The awe-inspiring things in these experiences vary considerably, from suns in sunsets to glowing visages in holy visions, to juices in simple tangerines. For different people, different views along the broad spectrum of these affectively intensive grand-view experiences can produce meaning in life, the influential facet of wellbeing identified by positive psychologists but poorly differentiated from meaning-making in other senses. This paper lays out a theory of semiotic vistas to organize such disparate signification events, identify their use of largely non-linguistic signs, and locate them in relation to the meaning in life construct. Using examples of mountain hiking experiences, mindfulness meditation experiences, and supernatural encounters, I describe semiotic vistas as signreading events in which trigger-signs (including co-occurring signs, sign-chains, and meta-signs) give rise to two key interpretants, a grand interpretant and an important-aspect-of-reality interpretant. The trigger-signs, key interpretants, and their relations to each other and their object allow the witness to infer the identity of the object in a vista as a particular rarely encountered reality (a particular world). Furthermore, when intense affect associated with the vista process is positive, a witness may develop or seek a method to witness, in order to systematically attempt to re-encounter a semiotic vista, often with a similar view. Conversely, and illustrated by the case of emotional abuse among intimate partners, views can become polluted, in that a third, danger interpretant is associated with the vista of a view category to discourage vista-seeking. I also discuss how this theory may be contribute to future research in a semiotics of wellbeing.
Nicolas Arms (UC Berkeley)
Peircean trichotomies as semiotic “features”
In this presentation, I argue that Peircean “trichotomous divisions of signs” are best envisioned, at least in part, both as analogues of, and as alternatives to, the semantic or referential “features” traditionally invoked in studies of natural language grammar. Focusing for illustrative purposes on the grammatical category of deictics or shifters, I show how such an approach to semiotic typology is fundamentally at odds with the now conventional BurksianJakobsonian analysis of deictic forms in language as “indexical symbols,” and I suggest in this light that the apparently symbol-like properties of deictics are better captured in terms of a division of signs according to what Peirce called the “final interpretant.” By reconceptualizing Peircean trichotomies as semiotic features, it becomes possible simultaneously to appreciate both the relative imprecision of a 10-class (or even 66-class) typology of signs, together with the speculative promise of semiotics as a means of grounding linguistic description in a domain-general (i.e. extralinguistic) theory of inference.
Chen, Chuan Hao (University of Pennsylvania)
Designing Semiotic Flows through Containment: Doors, Windows and the Interplay of Affordances and Ideology in the Research Laboratory
How do architects design for contradicting goals such as containment and open communication? How are different ideologies of pedagogy, safety, and transparency communicated through the placement and orientation of specific doors, and how do different material affordances shape the circulation and uptake of these contrasting ideologies (Gal and Irvine 2019)? In this paper, I use affordances (Gibson 1979) as a conceptual framework to analyze two specific moments in my field work among laboratory design consultants – the design of a specialized DNA laboratory and the placement of faculty office doors – in order to discuss the ways in which a simple door drawing comes to mediate multiple imaginations of risk and function. Akin to what Murphy (2015) has, drawing upon Bakhtin, described as “heteroglossic artifacts,” I zoom in on detailed drawings and discussions between designers and scientific users to describe how multiple stakes and conflicts come to be rooted in a simple door. I contrast between three frames: how prime architects describe issues of structure and day light, how laboratory architects mediate ideas of safety and function, and how laboratory scientists draw upon past experiences to shape the way futures are imagined vis-à-vis the affordances of a door and window. I argue that the differential uptake of what a door affords requires an in-situ contextualization of the (literal) ground, a ground that is differentially assumed by different stakeholders. Moving beyond a cross-sectional reading of affordances and semiotics, I unpack the relationship between ideology and affordances to analytically capture temporal inter-relationality and referentiality as signified through the design process of laboratory materiality and functionality. I complicate the common sensical notion of design as solely future-oriented by depicting the contexts in which it references and reproduces past affordances.
Panel 3: Sound, Image, and Social Kinds
Mariam Durrani (Hamilton College)
Desi, Brown, Burger, Paindu, and Yo as Pakistani Youth Curations (and Critiques) of “Modernity”
In this paper, I analyze popular Pakistani figures of personhood through a study of transnational youth discourses and performances that relate across rural, urban, and (neo)colonial imaginaries of development, or lack thereof. My study of Pakistani youth curations and critiques of “modernity” focuses on five social types based on a multisited ethnography with college students in Pakistan, the U.S., and online English-speaking Pakistani Diaspora spaces. Within Pakistan, I highlight three figures based on parodic performances by students: (1) the “burger” type (a caricature of apolitical, elite youth), (2) the “paindu” type (based on stereotypes about rurality, village life, and feudal nostalgias), and (3) the “yo” type (based on global and local forms of anti-Blackness). In online and cooxygenated Diaspora spaces, I consider “Desi” and “brown” as generative social categories used by contentmakers and organizers to narrate histories of migration, racialization, and community resistance. I juxtapose these figures and categories as linked identity-based discourses produced through systems of stratified difference. My analysis suggests that these figures collectively index a complex (and at times contradictory) set of Pakistani youthcentered politics that indexes both neocolonial affects and anti-imperial resistance.
Siv B. Lie (U of Maryland, College Park)
Feeling to Learn: Romanies, Raciosemiotics, and Aural Pedagogy in France
This paper explores how music professionals promote interdiscursive oppositions between musical aurality and literacy to unsettle the terms of their racialization. For many French Manouches (a subgroup of Romanies/“Gypsies”), music is a source of pride, profit, and public recognition. Professional Manouche musicians often valorize their own aural pedagogical approaches in distinction to music literacy as espoused by French schools and conservatories. In doing so, these musicians elaborate a fractally recursive discourse (Irvine and Gal 2000) linking notions of expressivity, naturalness, and ethical behavior to their Manouche identity in contrast to an inhumane white French society. They construct parallel contrasts between Black and white musicalities in the jazz world to convey their value as racialized musicians, pointing to broader transnational formations of race, as well as French color-blind policy that conditions speech about race and racism. In this paper, I take a raciosemiotic (Smalls 2020) approach to show that advocacy for aurally-centered music pedagogy becomes a way for speakers to critique the discrimination Manouches face as racialized subjects. For these musicians, self-exoticization is a multifaceted tactic to develop a market niche, to prove themselves as good neoliberal subjects, & to disrupt the racial logics that render such alterity both an asset & a burden.
Juliet Pascal Glazer (University of Pennsylvania)
Instruments of Value: Aesthetic and economic valuation amongst violinmakers
Violinmakers in the United States valuate the instruments they make both with respect to aesthetic values (including but not limited to instruments’ timbre, or sound quality), and with respect to exchange-values. In this paper I explore how valuation as a semiotic act of comparison amongst means and ends (Dewey 1939), or value as the intersection of what agents strive for and signs stand for (Kockelman 2020) can model these artisans’ ongoing projects of sound making as worldmaking. I demonstrate that musical instruments become instrumental not only in the production of particular ranges of sound qualities and musical genres, but also in the valuation of a range of extra-musical means and ends in the lives of violinmakers.
Indivar Jonnalagadda (University of Pennsylvania)
Dharma-ganta: What they Talk about When they Talk about Corruption
Dharma-ganta (roughly translated as ‘hour of duty’) is a recurring column in the Telugu newspaper Namasthe Telangana, which is sponsored by the ruling Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS party). The column normally carries journalistic reports on cases where private land is allegedly mishandled or misappropriated by the Land Revenue department. However, between June to October 2019, coinciding with the period when the TRS party launched a campaign to “reform” the “corrupt” Revenue department, the Dharmaganta column became a space for crowdsourced petitions and complaints highlighting malpractices of Revenue officers in the first person voices of the ordinary petitioners. While the newspaper represents the column as the unmediated voice of the people pitted against the venal bureaucrats, in this paper I analyze the corpus of these published petitions alongside ethnographic fieldwork in Revenue offices during the same time, to highlight the wider participation framework of this corruption discourse that includes the ruling TRS party, land transparency activists, champions of land liberalization and low-level land bureaucrats threatening to organize as a union. I argue that the newspaper column, principally driven by the interests of the TRS party, enlists voices of ordinary people to formulate “corruption” as the product of “corrupt bureaucracy” which in turn formulates the internal organization of “the state” as being a contentious field of visionary political leaders pitted against sabotaging bureaucrats who systematically stymie the progress of the people.
Hei-won Byun (University of Pennsylvania)
What is the desirable voice?: The instructions & evaluations of voice production in Japanese voice actor training
This paper explores the discursive features of “desirable voice” in Japanese voice actor training. Voice actors and aspiring voice actors learn how to control their bodies to generate desirable voice(s) by attending various training courses at specialized institutions. By analyzing ethnographic data that I collected for one academic year at a voice actors’ training institute in Tokyo, I show how the trainers discursively deliver the characteristics of “desirable/ undesirable” voices. The trainees embody those discursive features of voices through various physical activities that train voice-related organs and trainers’ lectures that frequently compare human bodies to different things such as animals, balloons, and sound equipment. Further, this paper traces the continuous evaluations along the process of the instruction and the internalization of voice qualities. Even when the class are specifically focused on vocalization, the practices of evaluation are not limited to voice qualities but embraces extended characteristics of trainees’ such as diligence, initiative, and politeness. I argue that this series of communications in classes about preceding aspects including body control, voice qualities, and self-management are based on certain features of personhood, the “desirable voice actor,” which is simultaneously the ultimate goal of the trainees and everchanging concept that continuously reconstituted by each trainees’ daily interactions.
Panel 4: Resurgence and Alterity
Karl Swinehart, (University of Louisville)
Toponyms, Transit, and Transformation in La Paz, Bolivia
This paper examines the Aymara language’s visible presence within the celebrated “teleférico” public transit system of the metropolitan area of La Paz / El Alto, Bolivia. Lauded as “the most spectacular public transit system on the planet,” this aerial gondola system extends across the mountainous La Paz / El Alto metropolitan region connecting previously distant areas in new ways, transforming residents’ relationship to urban social space. Inaugurated in 2014, by the time of its completion the system will have eleven lines, thirty-nine stations, and cover 34 kilometers. Even prior to full completion, the teleférico has already dramatically reduced travel times across the two cities, altering the space-time configuration of urban life in Bolivia’s capital. The Aymara language is featured prominently within this transformation, with the relative size, placement, and distribution of bilingual text in teleférico stations foregrounding the Aymara language. Aymara names for teleférico stations include already existing toponyms rephonemized into Aymara (Sopocachi / Supu Kachi), calques of Spanish (Estación Central / Taypi Uta), and also evocative and often novel Aymara language descriptions of urban space without any correspondence to existing Spanish toponyms (Héroes de la Revolución / Inalmama). Drawing on both semantic analysis of toponymic signage and ethnographic accounts of riders’ experiences on the teleférico, I argue that the material textuality of bilingual signage suggests an assertion of Aymara hegemony in the city. Rather than just preserving Aymara heritage, this language policy intervention transforms the linguistic landscape throughout the city and introduces Aymara toponyms beyond areas of Indigenous confinement. My discussion of this contemporary case invites reflection on the relation of state power to toponymy and suggests that historically oriented discussions of toponymy in the region consider the power-laden nature of naming as a semiotic process.
Kirtana Dasa (Kirt) Mausert (UC Berkeley)
Protests against the February 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar have included remarkable public displays of contrition for the genocidal violence against Rohingya Muslims from the country’s western Rakhine State. The Burmese military’s coup, ousting a democratically elected government whose leadership had prominently backed this genocide, came as a shock to many and has dramatically refigured the social range and domain of those susceptible to being rendered as categorical outsiders to the nation. This specific semiotic effect is realized through what I describe here as a register of disavowal. This multimodal semiotic register formation is exemplified, I argue, in public acts of disavowal firstly of the ethnonym “Rohingya.” In so doing, Burmese Buddhist nationalists in particular have sought to ratify the military’s official discourse of “national races.” These acts of disavowal extend to claims that widespread well-documented news reports of the military’s genocide of Rohingya amount to “Fake Newss” and the legally inscribed exclusion of Rohingya from citizenship rights under the country’s 1982 citizenship law, to repudiation of Rohingya bodies as “ugly as ogres” and “dirty” and even advertisements for soap products purporting to protect users from smelling like “kalar,” a ubiqituous term of racialized verbal abuse stereotypically directed at those of South Asian descent in Myanmar, and to Rohingya especially. I argue in this paper that this metasemiotic register formation, beyond merely providing socially recognized schema of sub-personhood, indexes a condition of anxiety with respect to the aforementioned official discourse of “national races.” Those who participate in conspicuously enacting this register’s forms are afforded a sort of semiotic prophylaxis against interpellation as constitutive outsiders, potentially subject to violent extirpation from the nation, as a generation of young Burmese dissidents are now experiencing. Taking up a range of semiotic data, including from linguistic, visual, textual, and sartorial genres, I argue that those involved in reproducing this register of disavowal seek to iconically motivate the terms of their own inclusion in an unstable conception of the nation which is undergoing radical transformation amidst the present political upheaval in Myanmar.
Karelle Hall (Rutgers University)
Distributed sovereignties: Lenape communicative revitalization
Prior to colonial displacement, Lenapehoking (land of the Lenape) consisted of a large, diverse territory in the mid-Atlantic. Today, it is not one nation with a single standard language or land-base, but instead many distinct political communities, scattered across the colonial borders of the United States and Canada, connected by a shared historical descent and violent dispersal. Some Lenape nations are recognized by federal or state governments while others have no external political recognition. Each community has retained a different form of Lenape affiliation, whether that be an ongoing government-to-government relationship, variations of the language, rituals, access to sacred sites, residence in the homelands, and other semiotic forms of Lenape identity. Considering these diasporic connections, this paper explores how Lenapehoking is shaped, imagined, and constructed through the communication practices of language revitalization work. Individuals across the diaspora have collaborated their language revitalization efforts, drawing from collective archives, creating multilingual educational spaces, and teaching across several Lenape communities. They engage with ideologies such as refusal, purism, linguistic nationalism, and ethnolinguistic belonging as they navigate Lenape sovereignty not based in a single community or around one Lenape dialect, but sovereignties that are separate and connected, collaborative and agonistic.
Nursyazwani Jamaludin (University of Pennsylvania)
Legibility by Invitation: Rohingya Refugees and The Value of Political Ambivalence
Scholarship on refugee legibility has focused on the ways in which state technologies register and document refugee bodies to bring them under state control. This neglects how many refugees, wanting to make their bodies legible, participate in such enumerative processes such as through re/appropriating state apparatus like documents. However, many of these works focus on the tensions arising from the double-edged nature of documentary practices, which produce ambivalent refugee subjects. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with Rohingya refugees in Klang Valley, Malaysia, between 2017 to 2019, this paper seeks to build upon current literature on ambivalence to look at the valuation process of, in this case, the UN refugee card, that makes it both desirable or otherwise. The different evaluative processes of the document enable us to understand how it gets valued and becomes a “boundary object” that operates within an ecology of practices. The signs embedded in the card indexes us to the larger infrastructures of refugee management and domestic politics, that motivate Rohingya refugees to position it as (1) an object of desire, and (2) why and how they want to become legible. Therefore, while ambivalence gestures us toward the double-edgedness of the UN card through the lens of biopolitics, the doublevaluation of ambi-valence alludes to the double process of legibility, where the document becomes an emblem of legibility and self, as an array of co-occurring signs. Reconfiguring Rohingya subjectivities as part of a tactic of strategic essentialism becomes important in their pursuit of becoming legible: being seen as Rohingya offers a path to make political claims against not only Myanmar, but also Malaysia.
Stephanie V. Love (CUNY)
Echoes of ‘Dead’ Colonialism: The Voices and Materiality of the Past in a (Post)colonial Algerian Newspaper
This paper develops the concept of the echo to describe how postcolonial Algerians semiotically locate and orient themselves in relation to the urban materiality of ‘dead’ colonialism, which I broadly define as the physical presence of objects and sensual qualities (accompanied by aesthetic-value-moral judgments) that Algerians see as persisting from the colonial before. I argue that an echo in discourse hinges on a tripartite dialogic structure: the dynamic interplay of past voices/signs, present listeners, and the material surfaces that reflect these voices/signs with delay, distortion, and varied intensity. Through the lens of the birth, death, and rebirth of a local Algerian newspaper (Écho d’Oran), I examine how past voices and sounds reverberate across the threshold of the colonial and postcolonial divide for specific socio-political and interpersonal effects, often challenging the notion that colonialism is ‘dead and gone.’ By analyzing the discursive echoes in the narratives of three directors of three different iterations of this newspaper that I collected during sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Algeria, this paper adds a new dimension to the robust scholarship on language materiality by positing the material world as more than the setting or context in which material speech and social action occur, but rather as shaping how language is heard and stances are taken in concrete ways. I conclude that echoes are central to how people tell stories about their past that matter in the present.
Panel 5: Emblematic Partitions
Mallory E. Matsumoto (Brown/UT-Austin)
Ontology and Perception in Classic Maya Ideologies of Hieroglyphic Writing
For over 1,500 years, Maya scribes in southern Mesoamerica recorded historical, narrative, religious, and other texts using a hieroglyphic writing system that combined logographic and syllabic signs that remained undeciphered until the late 20 th century. Now, thanks to several decades of epigraphic advancement, we can pose questions that extend beyond the hieroglyphs’ referential meaning to their sociocultural contexts of use. Drawing on the Peircean concepts of qualia and qualisign (L.H. Chumley and Harkness 2013; Munn 1986), I propose that material form, tactile perception, and social proximity to writing—the hieroglyphic qualia on which I focus—were fundamental to how writing was perceived and to the human-hieroglyph interactions that sustained the script across the lowlands for centuries. I suggest that terminology for the hieroglyphs privileged the physical and technological experience of scribal production above visual or embodied interaction with the finished text. Qualia of proximity, in contrast, were encoded in grammatical constructions that established distinct roles for producers, users, and written artifacts. A semiotic approach reveals indigenous classes of materiality and knowledge contents that do not readily align with those that we usually employ in Western scholarship. It also points to the relational nature of Classic Maya hieroglyphic production and access that, upon more systematic inspection, may reveal differences in socially prescribed access to writing and its products.
Kristina Nielsen (University of Pennsylvania)
MTI in the TTT: counter-persona and making expertise in India’s accent industry
The “neutral accent” is the label given to a range of commoditized speech behaviors which form the standard of most English medium call center training in India. In recent history the so-called neutral accent has replaced British, American, and Australian standards in the professional accent raining industry in India. Call center workers are hired based on whether they are deemed to speak in a manner which is relatively “neutral”. The speakers and trainers of the neutral accent come from relatively elite backgrounds, but there is not a single background or type of personhood that it can be directly linked to, rather in moments of evaluation, non-neutral features and forms of personhood are identified through the meta-linguistic category of Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). This paper analyzes interactions recorded during a “train the trainer” (TTT) program where aspiring accent trainers undergo a professional certification course to become accent and language experts in the Business Process Outsourcing industry. Drawing from recorded interactions and participant observation from two trainer cohorts, I offer the concept of counter persona to discuss how the neutral accent is enregistered for new trainers through the highlighting not only of non-neutral sounds, but the personae with which those sounds are associated. This is done through metalinguistic discourse as well as role playing activities where master trainers inhabit these roles. Through the presentation of a range of counter personae, trainers learn not only which sounds to target in accent training, but what types of personhood are not of international “quality”.
Andrew Carruthers (University of Pennsylvania)
In December 2017, Malaysian English Daily The Star published a feature essay on Milo, a chocolate malt powder beverage produced by Nestlé and popularly consumed throughout Southeast Asia. Titled “One man’s Milo is another’s oleh-oleh [souvenir],” the piece featured commentary by Indonesian customers and shopkeepers in the Indonesia-Malaysia borderlands on the island of Borneo. “Everything Malaysian — like Apollo chocolate layer cake, Milo, and Summer soap — is special,” notes an Indonesian customer. “The difference between some Indonesian and Malaysian products is quality,” explains a shopkeeper. These reported observations are widely shared by Indonesian migrants in this borderland region, who typically characterize Malaysian Milo as lebih kental or “thicker” and thus lebih enak or “more delicious” than its Indonesian counterpart. This talk examines how Malaysian and Indonesian iterations of the Milo commodity are discursively formulated and contrastively valuated vis-à-vis the relative “thickness” that both are assumed to share. In so doing, it calls for closer attention to “comparison” as a species of discursive semiosis and mode of social praxis.
Nooshin Sadegh-Samimi (University of Pennsylvania)
Counting the “Not Yet”: The Semiotics of Census-taking
How do everyday reflections on census-taking and representation hinge upon evaluative judgments? In this paper, I explore temporal attunements towards regimes of value, and how such attunements are contrastively separated and ordered based on political imperatives for MENA migrants construed as Muslim in the United States. I examine how counting, as a particular form of reasoning, derives from a fraught political relationship, which in turn reflects contestations regarding social relations of belonging.
Marshall Knudson (University of Pennsylvania)
The Continuing Ambiguities of Race/Class from a Language-Centered Perspective
In contemporary neoliberal Chile (Paley 2001, Han 2012), class identities are become starkly segregated, geographically and sociolinguistically marked. This paper examines the intersections of class and ethnic identity in the indigenous Mapuche urban diaspora in Chile from a broadly semiotic perspective. In talking about class and race/ethnicity, we are very often talking about overlapping referents, ‘the same people’ seen from different categorial angles. Postero and Zamosc (2004) have noted the “continuing ambiguity” between class and ethnic categories and identities in south America. Using a sociolinguistic analysis, I demonstrate how Chilean class structure is articulated at the level of speech among young adults in the Mapuche urban diaspora, emerging in two narratological figures of personhood, the ‘flaite’ and the ‘cuico’. These figures virtually diagram antipodal kinds, highly marked ‘versions’ of Mapuche persons. But while the Mapuche cuico is an alter-designated term, the Mapuche flaite is subject to both alter- and self-designation. The lower-class identity emblematized by the flaite is seen as compatible with Mapuche ethnic identity. The language of class is not considered a Mapuche discourse among these young adults, but the acts and activities of boundary-making that take place in the Mapuche diaspora often involve markers of class, or economic status, as characteristics potentially deauthorizing for in-group status.
Panel 6: Forms of Indexicality
Stuart Earle Strange (Yale-NUS)
Domesticating the Monkey’s Scratch: The Irrepressible Contingency of Indexicality and the Meanings of Relation
Is the symbolic a form of domestication? And if “human nature” is now recognized as “an interspecies relation” (Tsing 2012: 141) how might we understand the semiotics of such a collapsing of social and natural history? This paper considers recent debates about domestication and multispecies ethnography alongside the semiotic of symbols to theorize the epistemic and ethical ambiguities that so strongly manifest in scholarship about human-animal relations. Reflecting on why a specific naturalistic scratching gesture stands for the quality of “monkeyness” in contemporary Singaporean possession rituals, I explore how attempts to distinguish multispecies ethnography from earlier structural and symbolic approaches point to similarly equivocal foundations in indexicality. These indexical underpinnings highlight why attempts to understand interspecies relations provoke a recognition of mediation that inevitably incites ethical passion and aporia. Thinking through how debates about the symbolic might correspond to those around domestication foregrounds a broader problem of contingency in anthropology, a problem which nevertheless also illustrates the particular power of anthropological theory to confront the conundrums of relationality.
Elliott Prasse-Freeman (National University of Singapore)
Bullets & Boomerangs: Addressee-design in Myanmar’s ongoing anti-coup uprising
In the massive uprising against Myanmar’s recent military coup, many of the protest messages appearing across the country seem to seek addressees beyond Myanmar’s borders. Either in terms of substantive content (posters that ask foreign militaries to “save us”) or formal structure (enormous messages – written on pavement, mountains, and plains, and often through human bodies constructing mass ornaments – that cannot be read by those constructing them), signs appear to appeal to transcendent figures: the UN, the USA, or a vague “international community.” However, closer inspection of the way these signs are consumed, commented upon, and circulated on Burmese Facebook by Burmese users – reveals additional dynamics regarding addressees and addressee design structure. I argue that these signs operate in a boomerang fashion, in the sense that for some Burmese protesters these signs do not actually require external mediators (no “international community” needs to confirm receipt; indeed, that “community’s” refusal of uptake might progressively denude the images of their “demanding” capacity); instead the signs are taken up locally, where their reiteration conducts political work: they either symbolically assault Myanmar’s generals (by appealing to other sovereigns), or produce a distance from the immediacy of struggle against street violence to inscribe on the coup itself summary statements about it (‘Save Myanmar’, ‘Federal Democracy,’ and, of course, ‘Fuck the Coup’). This latter archive-in-formation project produces a field of joint attention in which Myanmar people talk to one another, foregrounding common enemies (generals and collaborators) but also introducing political dissonance that must be addressed: the sign ‘We Want Democracy’ posted on one hill is clarified and challenged by the demand for ‘Self-Determination’ inscribed on another, demanding: what kind of “democracy” will this be? After tracking how this tension has compelled a rapid evolution of the anti-coup movement’s politics, the paper concludes by considering broader issues pertaining to the “diagrammatic architectonics” of addressee design modelled by the boomerang metaphor.
Becky Schulthies (Rutgers University)
A Semiotics of Argan Phyto-diplomacy
Argan trees (Argania spinoza) and their oil are framed as an endangered, tropical relic species endemic to the southwest Moroccan coast. The arganeraie forest extends over semi-arid, marginal agricultural terrain among a marginalized indigenous ethnolinguistic community, the Tachelhit Amazigh (Berber). Designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1998 (Bani-Aameur 2004; Lybbert et al. 2011), women’s relations to argan trees (culinary oil extraction, firewood collection, animal fodder, shade and soil stability for barley) have been key to the emergence of rural Amazigh women as a public essential to conservation and desertification in particular (Davis 2005, Guillaume and Charrouf 1999, Lybbert et. al. 2001). More significantly for the political economy of the tree, a Moroccan phytochemist “discovered” its cosmetic affordances in 1984, creating a global marketing demand for argan oil. In this presentation, I explore the phytocommunicability models shaping argan’s diplomatic work between Amazigh, Moroccans, Israelis, the European Union and Sahrawais.
Ferhan Tunagur (University of Pennsylvania)
Kyrgyz evidentials across chains of communicative activity
Traditional discussions of evidentiality have been isolating evidentiality into sentence grammar. This paper, while relying on a novel approach to adequately account for indexical properties of categorial dimensions of Kyrgyz evidentials at the sentence level, instead argues that an examination of evidentially modalized propositional acts across chains of communicative activity is necessary to capture key features of such indexicality and thereby how to understand it. The paper follows the trajectory of a single Kyrgyz speaker’s utterances in distinct participation frameworks and shows the significance of when he starts, maintains, and stops using evidential markers. The explicit obligatory grammatical marking of evidentiality in Kyrgyz allows us to track differences of stances at different points in a person’s trajectory. Concomitantly, challenging the assumption that evidential markers grammatically encode independently occurring facts, and thereby they are merely presupposing indexicals, the paper argues that evidentials are highly creative indexicals. In the instances that the paper focuses on, rather than neutrally coding pre-existing facts, evidentials make explicit the figurement of the situation and figurements of persona in a history of prior and subsequent semiotic events.
Panel 7: Mediatization and Mediation
Davindar Singh (Harvard University)
Supply and De-Brand: The Logistics of Brand Defeasance in Punjabi Popular Music
Many recent linguistic anthropology publications productively examine the pragmatic defeasability of brand, focusing upon actors’ citational invocations of various aesthetics of “brandedness” in and out of the optative confines of copyright law (Nakassis 2012). Many other linguistic anthropology publications examine scalar discourses that underpin the production of, among many others: mediatized personhood (Agha 2011), classics of Boasian anthropology (O’Connor 2020), and, again, IP and its pragmatic tenuousness (Dent 2013, Nakassis 2016). In this paper I examine one particular situation wherein the subject matter of the latter literature causes the subject matter of the former literature. Today, both state-driven and transnational enterprise reconstruct Indian Punjab’s cities, farmland, state space, and Indian national space according to explicitly scalar discourses of economic expansion and extraction. As part of this extraction, international investment creates large-scale logistics and transportation infrastructure in Punjab, and transnational capital — both through investment and remittances floods the province. Increased citation of imported prestige commodities in Punjabi markets and media follows suit, prominently in popular music, and so too does the musically mediatized construction of oppositional figures of personhood with reference to, respectively, these newly localized luxury brands and older, decidedly un-luxurious brands of logistical transport vehicles — trucks, vans, and tractors. I outline how musicians’ success stories of personal branding and subsequent fame, told backstage and onstage, concurrently breach the would-be bounds of copyright and hew closely to the spatial rescaling of contemporary, logistically-driven North Indian political economy. However pragmatically fluid brand’s citationality may be, here it hews closely to the scale-making (and profit-making) activity of transnational supply chains. Today these supply chains link Punjab’s agricultural industries, logistics infrastructure, transnational investment, branded aesthetics of selfhood, and the mediatized music videos that lend a moralizing ear to all of the above.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan (CUNY)
“Brandishing Red Flag Against Red Flag”: The Interdiscursive Presentation of Class Solidarity in an Online Labor Protest in Post-socialist Contemporary China
Abstract: Grassroots labor movements in contemporary China – an officially socialist country balancing neoliberal policies with state monopoly on society control and legitimate discourses – are faced with unique challenges of, and potentialities for, self-legitimation. This paper examines three levels of interdiscursivity in the leftist presentational politics of a multilateral online labor protest in China in 2018 that centered around its banned website. Firstly, on the level of website curation, articles explicitly attributed to various socio-politically significant groups and sources are (re)posted, edited, and orchestrated into a symphony of supporting voices. Secondly, especially within several petition letters by the protest group, the register of Maoist class struggles – officially abjured yet remaining relevant and authoritative – is appropriated to project a normative participation framework regarding state-labor relations, as an interpellation addressed to the state. Thirdly, across these petition letters attributed respectively to three subgroups of protesters, the alignment of the political personae Maoism assigns to three group categories student, intellectual, and worker – is enacted in the way the subgroups address each other and address state leaders. These levels of interdiscursivity jointly contribute to the representation of Maoist class solidarity that supposedly legitimizes the protest against the state exposed as ideologically inconsistent and hypocritical – i.e., post-socialist.
Tri Phuong (Yale University)
The Work of Pop in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Youth Music Videos and the National Imaginary in Late-Socialist Vietnam
On New Year’s Eve of 2016, Vietnamese pop singer Sơn Tùng M-TP dropped a track that took the Internet by storm. The song Lạc Trôi (“Lost and Adrift”) received almost 200 million views on Youtube, putting a local artist atop the global music scene for the first time. A kitschy blend of Vietnamese rap over syncopated trap beats, the music video foregrounds a forlorn youth awash in hedonistic pursuits. Despite its popularity, the singer was criticized for using Chinese caricatures and rapping in an indecipherable language. Pundits declared that the video accurately portrayed Vietnamese youth as culturally ignorant and self-absorbed. The youth responded in an Aesopian fashion. Within a few days, a video remix by a group of jokers poked fun at the artist’s linguistic gibberish, cleverly transforming the song’s main protagonist into a floating peanut through double entendre. Another version combined the clip’s lyrics with images from an ongoing environmental movement to turn the work of pop into a scathing critique of state violence and repression. The interplay of the original music video and its digital duplications in the online public sphere illustrates the battleground of digital media in fostering the national imagination. This presentation focuses on the ways in which youth media activities in Vietnamese popular culture exemplify a notion of “play” – a repertoire of everyday tactics that tests the limits of censorship to express individual and collective identities. Close analysis of play distills how signs take on new meanings through remediation, the representation and translation of symbols across media via intertextual techniques. Play makes use of analogy, metonymy, and metaphor to challenge incumbent socialist truths. The semiotics of play frames a unique aesthetics of protest under censorship whereby ordinary citizens turn puns, parody, and pop culture into tools for political critique and collective action.
Kyung-Nan Koh (HUFS)
The Role of Glossing in the Communicative Mediation of Organizations
This presentation questions the semiotic process of organizing in corporate organizational settings. With data gathered from a multilingual and multiethnic corporation in Hawai‘i, it focuses on how ‘mediators’ engage in voluntarily mediation of corporate internal speech events with various techniques of verbal glossing (including, language-to-language translation, semiotic transduction and transformation, etc.). Recent scholarship on the semiotic aspects of organizational communication highlights how organizing as process is a matter of communicative mediation. This case presentation reveals how glossing activities carried out by mediators inside organizations might be viewed as semiotic remediation acts, which create relations between speech events via production of metatexts reusing source-like elements that at the socio-interactional level help reframe separate utterances/dialogues as organized on a larger framework of participation.
Gareth Smail (University of Pennsylvania)
“Exposing the truth is not a crime”: Ideologies of mediatization in Morocco’s teacher labor politics
This paper explores how images of schools circulating online become a ground for contestation within Morocco’s teacher labor politics. Morocco’s teachers have a long history of public tension with their employer, the Ministry of Education, which came to the fore in an episode on Facebook before the start of the school year in September 2019. A teacher’s video of her school in disrepair spurred a viral campaign of teachers sharing images of deteriorating schools around the country and demanding that the Ministry improve their working conditions. The Ministry responded first by refuting the veracity of the images and punishing their circulators as proponents of “fake news”, and then finally, by creating and distributing images of its own, including carefully staged rituals in which Ministry officials toured recently renovated school facilities. The slogan “exposing the truth is not a crime” became a widely circulated hashtag among teachers as they doubled down in the face of the Ministry’s response. Integrating analysis of online discourse and ethnographic observation of staged Ministry rituals, I examine how differing practices of mediatization (Agha, 2011) inform the uptake of the competing images within the Facebook argument between teachers and their employer. Underpinning the argument is a tension between different modes establishing “truth” via images (cf. Strassler, 2020); while the Ministry focuses on arguing that individual images are “fabricated” or “false” representations of the schools they purport to document, the teachers argue via comments that—irrespective the veracity of any one image—the stream of images exposes a broader “truth” about what they see as the Ministry’s inadequate custodianship over public education. Moreover, these tensions threaten the historically privileged status of staged rituals as a form of political image-making in Morocco, especially on platforms like Facebook. While the Ministry’s own staged images may be “authentic” in the sense that they are not digitally manipulated, they are not recognizable as representations of school life for those that work in Moroccan public education.