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The Eighth Annual Conference on Semiotic Anthropology May 14, 2022.


All listed times are Eastern Daylight Time. You can click the panel title for the corresponding abstracts.


PANEL 1: CHRONOTOPES (9:00-10:20)



Jay Ke-Schutte

Zhejiang University

Remixing the revolution: Postsocialist citationality and musical deixis on a Chinese campus


Eva Steinberg

City University of New York

Freezing Seeds, Seeding Futures


Pullanna Vidyapogu, Council for Social Development, and Indivar Jonnalagadda,

University of Pennsylvania

Caste, State, & Urban Ecology: How the Bathukamma festival reworked socio-environmental relations in Hyderabad’s peripheries


Maria Sidorkina

University of Texas-Austin

Discussant's Commentary



Open discussion

PANEL 2: FIGURES (10:20-12:00)



Llerena Guiu Searle

University of Rochester

Figures at an Exhibition: Trade Fairs, Communication, Personhood



Nikhil Sood

City University of New York

The Case of the Missing ‘Self' in Linguistic Anthropology



Hei-won Byun

University of Pennsylvania

“So, how many Twitter followers do you have?”: Challenges for Aspiring Voice Actors in the Internet Era



Idil Ozkan

Northwestern University

Qualia of Distinction: A Semiotic Analysis of Ethnoreligious Differentiation among Sephardi Jews in Turkey



Asif Agha

Discussant's Commentary



Open Discussion


Lunch Break

PANEL 3: CONTRASTS (1:00-2:40)



Maria Sidorkina

University of Texas at Austin

What is polarization?


Aurora Donzelli (Sarah Lawrence College, NY, USA and University of Bologna, Italy)

Sarah Lawrence College and & University of Bologna

Kinetic Intensities and Moral Registers of Pandemic Place Branding


Suzie Telep

University of Pennsylvania and INALCO, France

Performing an ethos of a ''dominant black woman'' through language and body: passing at the intersection of race, gender, and class


Eunsun Lee

University of Pennsylvania

The Precarious Standard and the renewed model of “Respect”: Address Terms and Neoliberal National Language Policy


Andrew Carruthers

Discussant's Commentary


Open Discussion




Gabriel Alejandro Rivera Cosme

University of Luxembourg

Language Policy in Luxembourg: The Emergence of Standard(s)


Sydney Negus

University of Pennsylvania

Student Landscapes: Semiotics of a School Board Meeting


Joanne Baron

Bard Early College

Money in the Classic Maya period



Xiao Ke

University of Pennsylvania

Colonial Marxism: From Ethnographic Survey to Political Takeover in 1950s Amdo Tibet



Angela Reyes

Discussant's Commentary



Open Discussion

2022 Conference Abstracts

List of panels


Panel 1: Chronotopes (Saturday 9:00-11:20)


Jay Ke-Schutte (Zhejiang University)

Remixing the Revolution: Postsocialist Citationality and Musical Deixis on a Chinese Campus

In July of 2021, a group of students and instructors at Tsinghua University were featured in a collaborative performance of Guoji Ge (国际歌) – a piece which will be better known to Euro-American audiences as The International or L’International. As a discourse object, Guoji Ge’s political meanings and artistic identity across different chronotopes, does not lie in one singular translation of the lyrics but rather in something synesthetic or musically ‘felt,’ a something that appears is inextricable from the song’s intelligibility as a materialization of history. As a site of social and aesthetic deixis (Manning 2001; Chumley and Harkness 2003; Nakassis 2018), the Tsinghua University and many subsequent performances of Guoji Ge may be seen as engendering a citational counterpoint between an array of discourse objects that make use of this social artifact: the film The East is Red (in 1965); rock band, Tang Dynasty’s famous arrangement in the wake of Tiananmen (in 1989); and, more recently, its invocation as a nostalgic re-imagining of ‘Third Worldism’ ( from 1954 down to the present). It is this citational counterpoint across space-times that I want to explore through the lens of millennial internationalism.

Eva Steinberg (CUNY)

Freezing Seeds, Seeding Futures

By framing seeds as chronotopes that, this paper offers a semiotic framing to describe and emphasize a seed’s inherent potentiality (Bahktin, 1937). By examining ex situ preservation, I describe how seeds are simultaneously undergoing processes of decontextualization, entextualization, and, ideally, recontextualization. Seeds, biologically, are the embryo of a plant, desiccated and encased to ensure survival until encountering favorable conditions for growth. Seeds are both physical manifestations of the past and representations of future potential, as the temporal scope of a seed entails the histories that led to its cultivation and social entanglements as well as its current usage (Fullilove, 2017). As they grow and adapt through localized encounters, both human and non-human, the meaning and composition of seeds evolves with every generation.  Given a seed’s embeddedness in their various environments, what does it mean to “save” a seed? This paper argues that a seed’s contextual contingency makes them ripe for theorization as a semiotic process (Gal & Irvine, 2019).  I focus on ex-situ cryopreservation to explore how decontextualizing a seed becomes necessary to transcend anticipated extinction and climate crisis (Kowal & Radin, 2017), and to ask what relationships are maintained or lost through these efforts to “freeze time” by placing seeds in an intertextual gap (Briggs &Baumann, 1992) or “zone of the incomplete” (Bird Rose, 2017). I argue that freezing can be theorized as both a form of entextualization and recontextualiziation (Silverstein & Urban, 1996), as seeds are both transformed into static commodities for circulation among the scientific community and into symbols of technoscientific salvation from impending environmental doom. 


Pullanna Vidyapogu (Council for Social Development), Indivar Jonnalagadda (University of Pennsylvania)

Caste, State, and Urban Ecology: How the Bathukamma festival reworked socio-environmental relations in Hyderabad’s peripheries

In July 2014, the newly formed state government of Telangana announced that Bathukamma, earlier seen as a “folk festival” of the Telangana region, would now be considered as a “state festival”. With this announcement, the government also promised money and other logistical support to communities celebrating the festival and hence promoting the new statehood of Telangana. In this paper, drawing on two fieldwork projects conducted between 2014 and 2019, we track how Bathukamma went from being stereotypically associated with women from specific OBC castes (“other backward classes”, but not Dalit; a governmental category) engaged in water-related occupations, to becoming a broad platform for political participation for all caste groups, and also a universal avenue for gaining resources from the state. Incidentally, it is local “caste associations”, a peculiar species of civil society organizations in the Indian context, that are the conduits for funneling money and other resources from the state to particular communities when it comes to such state-led cultural practices. We examine two case studies: firstly, the celebration of Bathukamma by migrant communities living in slums in Hakimpet and Borabanda; and secondly, in contrast, the celebration of Bathukamma along the shores of the lake called Shaikpet Kotha Cheruvu, where it has a longer history and is still claimed as the special right of specific OBC castes who maintain customary claims to the lake and its resources. In both cases, it is local caste associations that lobby for access to state resources, and in both cases the caste associations exist to consolidate customary claims over land and water. Although in the one case of Shaikpet lake, the customary claims have been emplaced for generations, in the other case of migrants in the two slums, the claims are the result of an emergent socio- environmental politics at the urban peripheries. In this paper, we argue that the reanalysis and recontextualization of Bathukamma from a provincial folk practice to an urban state festival results in a reconfiguration of not just caste as a social structure of economic life, but a reworking of customary rights of access to resources like land and water which are articulated in terms of caste. Thus, we shed light on crucial relations between natural resources, social structures, and political discourses at work in the production of urban peripheries.

Panel 2: Figures

Llerena Guiu Searle (University of Rochester)

Figures at an Exhibition: Trade Fairs, Communication, Personhood.

This paper examines trade fairs, a little studied but critical genre of capitalist communication. Trade fairs are a genre of face-to-face communication that help to make possible geographically dispersed supply chains by enabling market participants to share information and form social networks (Leivestad and Nyqvist 2017). Noting their symbolic and ritual aspects (Moeran and Pederson 2011), scholars have argued that trade fairs “materialize market worlds” for their participants (Foster 2013), making market social relations visible to participants through the organization of space and time (Entwistle and Rocamora 2006; Skov 2006). In this paper, I analyze the Architectural Digest Design Show (ADDS), an art, design, and interior furnishings trade fair held for the first time in Mumbai, India in 2018, as a “genre overlap” (Orlikowski and Yates 1994, 544) — a genre that encompasses other genres of communication (e.g., brochures, sales pitches, etc.) — and which now spills over into other practices in the design community’s genre repertoire, such as social media posts. Examining the range of communicative genres that constitutes the ADDS, I demonstrate that the show operates not only to reproduce social structures, but to enregister figures of personhood (Agha 2003) — in this case that of the “designer” and the “craftsperson”— in ways conducive to designers’ attempts to navigate India’s new post-liberalization economy and build a market for their own expertise.


Nikhil Sood (CUNY)

The Case of the Missing ‘Self' in Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropological accounts of register-use, performance, and stylistic variation are often marked by a curious absence. This is the absence of failure: of failed stylistic productions and awkwardly performed personae; of mis-calibrated indexicality and unintended faux pas; of the ostensibly fake (Reyes 2017) and the stylistically excessive (Nakassis 2016); the absence of trying too hard and too little, and most importantly of the familiar discomfort and visceral cringe which an encounter with the above produces in interlocutors and bystanders alike. I argue that this relative absence from the ethnographic literature, of encounters involving infelicitous stylistic productions can be traced back to a corresponding lacuna in the theoretical framework surrounding linguistic registers. As the title of my paper suggests, the missing piece I have in mind consists of a rigorous theorization of the ‘self.’ As a range of theorists have compellingly argued, the socio-semiotic effect of a given voicing phenomenon (Hill 1995) is determined as much by the characterological figure associated with the voice in question, as it is by the interplay between the register being deployed and its semiotic co-text. The perennially creative potential of style seems to rely precisely on the seamless oscillation between the appropriate and the tropic—the movement from the one to the other being a function of the relative degree of (in)congruence between co-occurring voices (Agha 2007). This essential insight has been elaborated using a range of theoretical vocabularies, centering on the concepts of indexical order (Silverstein 2003), entextualization (Agha 2005), and the indexical field (Eckert 2008). However, in emphasizing the emergent interrelations between text and co-text—between enframed and enframing voices—this theoretical architecture points to another equally pertinent question. What is the semiotic relationship between the ensemble of figures indexically evoked in stylistic performance, and that more perduring ‘self,’ the ostensible orchestrator of the personae brought to life through stylistic practice (Goffman 1981)? In this paper, I develop the concept of citational distance as a possible heuristic to think through this complex and reflexive relation between the performing self and the selves performed. By extending the theory of enregisterment through a foregrounding of the self and the self-reflexive, I offer a framework that might help us better unpack the underside of style—as encountered in the familiar notions of the inauthentic, the disingenuous, and the excessive.


Hei-won Byun (University of Pennsylvania)

“So, how many Twitter followers do you have?”: Challenges for Aspiring Voice Actors in the Internet Era

This paper explores emergent neoliberal discourses in today’s Japanese popular culture industry in the Internet era and new challenges for young aspiring voice actors who dream to enter the industry. Since the 2000s, Japanese society has witnessed that amateur creators’ prominent activities in online spaces have led them to professional artistic careers in popular culture industry in most creative genres, including visual arts, story-writing, music, and performances. For the last couple of decades, these shifts have been normalized, and now the Internet spaces are regarded as not only accessible but also necessary channels in building one’s creative career. This paper reveals that this new environment constructs neoliberal imaginations by analyzing ethnographic data from a Japanese voice-actor school. While a worker is considered to be a “bundle of skills (Urciuoli 2008)” in contemporary society, the capitalistic requirement of Japanese popular culture industry in the Internet era goes one step further. In addition to possessing relevant skills, aspiring voice actors are supposed to prove they are competent users of those skills by showing their competitiveness in the market with their online influences. Through this analysis, I show that this emergent Internet environment is blurring the boundaries of amateurs and professionals, play and work, and popularity and career. I will also suggest the two-faced quality of this increasing ambiguousness.


Idil Ozkan (Northwestern University)

Qualia of Distinction: A Semiotic Analysis of Ethnoreligious Differentiation among Sephardi Jews in Turkey

In 2015, the Spanish government enacted a law that offers citizenship to Sephardim worldwide as atonement for the horrors of the Inquisition after 500 years, and was celebrated as the diasporic Jews' return to their Iberian homes. Although this law was presented as a historical apology, the legal and political discourses focalizes on the community’s 500-year maintenance of their vernacular language, Ladino, in the diaspora, thus, their eligibility for return to Spain. “Primordial Spanish enriched with loans from host languages” as the 2015 law refers to it, Ladino contains medieval Castilian linguistic features and has been transmitted across generations in the diaspora since the expulsion in 1492. In this paper, I focus on a multivalent linguistic sign in Ladino, "vedre," to analyze how ethnic, religious and class binaries operate and get reproduced in a Eurocentric regime of value in contemporary Turkey. The term vedre comes from verde (Spanish) meaning “green, culturally denoting Islam. Widely used as a code term for Ladino speakers to index Muslim(ness), vedre does not necessarily denote religiosity or the piousness of a given person or a group, but rather rather index (1) a personhood, the denoted person’s religious lineage, and more generally non-Jewishness or outsiderness; (2) a lower-middle class taste that is particularly attributed to the vedre groups encompassing forms, fashion registers, qualities, textures or colors. I conceptualize "vedre" not as a real person or group, but a figure of personhood and an aesthetic register to investigate how this position is formed and circulated. I ethnographically show how vedre as a personhod and qualia illustrates making and reproduction of ethnoreligious boundaries in micro social settings, and demonstrate how imagined social boundaries are bundled with notions of religion, class, and aesthetics.


Panel 3: Contrasts

Maria Sidorkina (The University of Texas at Austin)

What is Polarization?

Scholarly and media commentators typically use the term polarization to refer to age-old worries about speech and its relationship to political violence. Yet, certain kinds of enregistered socio-political alignments have become more accessible to people on social media platforms—which, in turn, are read as sites for the formation “public opinion” by journalists. In this paper I consider whether there is anything coherent to the phenomenon of polarization by looking at how political activists in Russia take it up in practice—on the streets, and in the media. I also consider how they, in turn, resist polarization by instituting rituals of reciprocity or depolarization. The ordinary activists I have worked with have found ways of addressing (concerns about) increasing polarization in ways that are more practicable than current social scientific proposals to solve the problem of uncivil or un-constructive public speech (e.g. by creating social media platforms that can fulfill individual face wants, or by incentivizing ‘critical- rational’ deliberation through status points.)


Aurora Donzelli (Sarah Lawrence College, NY, USA and University of Bologna, Italy)

Kinetic Intensities and Moral Registers of Pandemic Place Branding

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.


Suzie Telep (University of Pennsylvania and INALCO, France)

Performing an ethos of a ''dominant black woman'' through language and body: passing at the intersection of race, gender and class

My presentation falls within the fields of sociolinguistics, linguistic and semiotic anthropology, and Postcolonial Studies. I analyze the role of racial passing in processes of political subjectivation in a French-speaking black woman, Emilie, who is a consultant in the field of fashion and luxury goods. The corpus, consisting of Youtube videos of media interactions and photographs, was collected during a two-year ethnographic research in a Pan-african association of Afro-descendant activists of Cameroonian origins in Paris, France. This research aims to analyze the semiotic signs of whitening (whitisation in French), which I define as a form of racial passing: through a set of linguistic and non verbal practices, black people imitate the ways of speaking and behaving of the Whites or Westerners (Telep 2018, 2019, 2021). First, I show how Emily’s bodily practices in her photographs, through her performances of the Made In Africa cosmopolitan fashion, partly deconstruct an inferiorizing colonial representation of the "Black African Woman" (Boëtsch and Savarese 1999). Indeed, this bodily style enables her to perform a Black beauty that is racialized, but still in conformity with Western canons of beauty. Second, through the semiotic analysis of three media interactions, I show how Emilie can variously whiten both her accent and her bodily style so as to perform a professional ethos of black entrepreneurial women belonging to the upper classes, which conforms to social "images of bodies that are legitimate from the point of view of gender [class] and race" (Boni-Le Goff 2016: 164). I also show to what extent the audience (Bell 1984) plays a role in stylistic variation. Finally, I shed the light on the ambivalence of political subjectivation in this doubly minorized subject, by describing the permanent tension between subjection and emancipation in her semiotic practices (Butler 1997). (Key words: black woman; passing; language and body; subjectivity; language, race and gender; intersectionality; postcoloniality; African diaspora.).


Eunsun Lee (University of Pennsylvania)

The Precarious Standard and the renewed model of “Respect”: Address Terms and Neoliberal National Language Policy

The standardized repertoire of address terms, institutionalized by National Institute of Korean Language (NIKL), serves as a key point of reference for Korean speakers’ critical reflection and negotiation on their interpersonal behavior. For in-law relations, in particular, the standardized repertoire has been a major target of social debates in contemporary South Korea, with changes in patterns of marriage, co-residence, and affiliation rendering some of the traditionally normalized kinship terms incongruent with the social relations held between participants. Through a semiotic analysis of policy documents from three different standardization projects undertaken by NIKL over the last three decades, this paper examines how different kinship terms, older and newer, get evaluated and revalorized in the discourse of national standard. Focusing on the terms explicitly authorized or illegitimated and the supporting metapragmatic accounts, the analysis illustrates how certain terms come to be reentextualized as indexicals of “respectful” speakerhood, who is capable of deploying and negotiating address terms appropriate for each and every interactional context independently from the standard. By deemphasizing the authoritative role of the standard and foregrounding individual accountability in the behaviors of address, NIKL presents a covert political stance contrary to the public demand on the institution’s authorization and normalization of the newer terms. Situating this semiotic contestation within the historical context of NIKL’s role in South Korean society and language practice, I discuss the findings in relation to neoliberalism and the renewed model of “respect” in it.

Panel 4: Enregisterment


Gabriel Alejandro Rivera Cosme (University of Luxembourg)

Language Policy in Luxembourg: The Emergence of Standard(s)

Luxembourg has an officially trilingual education system, often viewed as a multilingual paradise, yet it faces many challenges that demystify such a view. The language factor is one of various intersecting features. The public language-in-education policy is based on an alternating teaching of French and German as foreign languages, which then become the course languages of other school subjects. However, Luxembourgish is the main informal language spoken among teachers and students alike. How did this trilingual policy come to be? This paper investigates ideology in language policy processes of design and implementation under regimes of standardization in Luxembourg during the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Language policy in Luxembourg is assumed to be a collection of text-artifacts and actions from individuals mediated by distinct ethno-metapragmatics (Silverstein, 1979; Agha, 2007) that establish the chosen setting as a particular standard language culture (Silverstein, 1996) characterized by varying degrees of institutional multilingualism. The aim of this research is, specifically, the analysis of standardization as a process of enregisterment (Agha, 2003, 2007, 2015) of French, German, and Luxembourgish at the crossroads of the design and the implementation of language policies. In other words, the research seeks to answer the question of whether these language varieties are regimented as standard languages and, if so, how their regimentation through language policy entails the binding of social types with language use in Luxembourg. A diachronic analysis of the enregisterment of the standard through policy texts (archival data) is complemented by a synchronic analysis of current policies and metapragmatic data in the form of interviews with teachers and policy-makers. A very brief sketch is drawn between the archival data of the 19th and 20th century and the data of the 21st century. Following Wortham & Reyes (2020), the aforementioned data are defined as series of events in a semiotic chain, or pathways. Cross-event linkages of language policy texts and interviews are thus analyzed following the discourse analysis based on the Peircean semiotics framework of linguistic anthropology (Wortham & Reyes, 2020; Gal & Irvine, 2019).


Sydney Negus (University of Pennsylvania)

Student Landscapes: Semiotics of a School Board Meeting


Joanne Baron (Bard Early College)

Money in the Classic Maya period

Money is one of those things for which there are many definitions and little agreement among economic anthropologists. These difficulties are exacerbated when studying Mesoamerica prior to European contact which, on the one hand, was isolated from the Afro-Eurasian world and lacked the native folk category of “money,” and on the other hand, was described as thoroughly monetized by Spanish explorers at contact. In Agha’s 2018 paper “Money Talk and Conduct from Cowries to Bitcoin,” he argues that money is best understood as a repertoire of enregistered signs, both linguistic and material, and that studying it in this way resolves many of these definitional difficulties. In this talk, I apply these insights to the Classic period Maya, examining the enregisterment of cacao, textiles, and other goods in different economic domains.


Xiao Ke (University of Pennsylvania)

Colonial Marxism: From Ethnographic Survey to Political Takeover in 1950s Amdo Tibet

How does a Marxist historical materialism register become a metadiscursive framework for colonization? This paper looks at how this process happened in 1950s when China invaded and attempted to incorporate Amdo Tibet in the newly established People’s Republic. Cross-referencing fragments of Chinese translations and monographic uptakes (Cai Hesen 1924, Mao 1930, Zhang Zhongshi 1939, 1954) of Engels’ (1884) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, I firstly delineate what part of the Marxist historical materialism register was selected to characterize 1950s Tibet by Chinese communist ethnographers. Then, I trace a mediatized division of labor between Chinese ethnographers, officials, commanders, army, police, and Tibetan elites, through their communicative chains (Agha 2011). I aim to show how this group of people collaborated in ‘indexically binding’ Marxist categories of ‘masses’ (qunzhong) and ‘the ruling class’ (tongzhijieji) with a range of Tibetan role designators (Hanks 2010). This process is dynamic rather than rigid, agential rather than passive—in that the CCP also flexibly separated ‘the upper strata’ (shangceng) from ‘reactionary elements’ (fandong fenzi) in Tibet, against a conventional Marxist interpretation. This colonial project is partial in that a coherent Marxist register in Tibetan was not invented until large-scale translation projects took place in the 1970s, which seldom reached the unschooled Tibetans. I will also use indigenous Tibetan meta-discursive categories collected from interviews with Tibetan elders as a comparative ground for such colonial inventions. An enduring myth of the Tibetan plateau’s ‘backwardness’ (luohou) was also produced in this process, and it is shared by Chinese and Tibetans down to the present.


panel 1 abstract
panel 2 abstract
panel 4 abstract
Vidyapogu & Jonnalagadda
Panel 3a abstracts
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