The Ninth Annual Conference on Semiotic Anthropology May 12-13, 2023
2023 CONFERENCE PROGRAM
All listed times are Eastern Daylight Time. You can click the panel title for the corresponding abstracts.
FRIDAY, MAY 12TH
PANEL 1: REFRAMING "THINGS" (9:00-1:40)
Stephanie V. Love
University of Texas at Austin
University of Pennsylvania
11:40-1:15 LUNCH BREAK
PANEL 2: COMMENSURATING EMBLEMS (1:15-3:30)
University of Montreal
Bard Early Colleges
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
PANEL 3: PERFORMING SELVES AND OTHERS (3:30-5:50)
University of California, Berkeley
Zhuoli (Jenny) Gao
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
6:00-8:00 CONFERENCE DINNER
SATURDAY, MAY 13TH
PANEL 4: EPISODES OF STATECRAFT (9:00-1:15)
University of Montreal
University of Pennsylvania
University of Chicago
University of Pennsylvania
PANEL 5: VOICING PERSONAE (1:15-3:45)
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
University of Montreal
2023 Conference Abstracts
List of panels
Panel 1: Reframing "things" (Friday 9:00-11:20)
Stephanie V. Love (Rutgers University)
Colonialism’s Mortal Remains in Algeria: Semiotic Landscapes of Ambivalence
This paper argues that abandoned Christian and Jewish cemeteries in postcolonial Algeria are semiotic landscapes of ambivalence—places that can’t be classified within a culturally recognized category of meaning and identity. Ambivalence allows for new subjectivities, actions, and imaginaries to emerge through colonialism’s mortal remains. Abstract: In 1962, nearly a million Christian and Jewish French Algerians fled Algeria after 132-years of settler-colonial rule. Sixty years later, abandoned Christian and Jewish cemeteries still litter the Algerian landscape. Cross-culturally, anthropologists have analyzed graveyards as places where societies remember themselves; however, cemeteries can also contain the material traces of discontinuity, rupture, and incoherence in the stories people try to make landscapes tell about their past, present, and future. Based on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper argues that abandoned cemeteries constitute semiotic landscapes of ambivalence—places that people cannot or refuse to classify within a culturally recognized and/or hegemonic symbolic category of meaning. Ambivalence foregrounds the irreducible complexity and undecidability of meaning-making and identity that link people, places, and language in complex and uneasy temporal relations. By analyzing the conflicting semiotics of Christian and Jewish cemeteries in postcolonial Algeria—places that are often abandoned but left in place—I expose the sentimental, political, and poetic potential of spatio-temporal disorder for transforming social imaginaries, rooted in how people sometimes fail to create coherent, unified narratives of what this place means in relation to who we are. Semiotic landscapes of ambivalence—as signs that fall between knowable categories or cannot be understood within the parameters of any system—can allow for new subjectivities, future actions, and social imaginaries to emerge through the potential for agency in the materiality of colonialism’s mortal remains.
Alex Kreger (University of Texas at Austin)
Re-Formatting Love: Esoteric Exposure and the Transnational Circulation of Alevi Muhabbet Ritual
For Alevis, a messianic Sufi group in Turkey and Turkey’s diaspora, muhabbet (love/conversation) is a highly-valued genre of ritual sociality. Featuring the musical recitation of poetry—usually accompanied by a sacred lute, the saz or “stringed Qur’an”—and consumption of ritually consecrated alcohol, muhabbet is a pedagogical site where Alevis learn to collectively embody human divinity. However, Alevis face a challenge when they wish to spread muhabbet—a social genre that is traditionally highly embedded in intimate co-present relationships, and therefore resistant to entextualization—across a transnational diaspora. The School of Divine Wisdom (Mekteb-i İrfan) is a muhabbet network established in 2011 by Alevi religious leader, singer-poet, and UNESCO “Living Human Treasure” Dertli Divani that attempts to do just that, in response to the breakdown of Alevi ritual orders following mass rural-to-urban migration and the efforts of Turkey’s conservative Islamist government to convert Alevis to majoritarian Sunni Islam. This paper examines how the School of Divine Wisdom has formatted muhabbet for circulation in new contexts and media such as concerts and social media posts. I argue that these muhabbet “formats” (their term) remediate the Alevi experience of human divinity by providing reflexive experiences of “being seen” (görgü, görülmek), a key trope in Alevi communal ritual tied to the ethical aim of group consensus (rızalık) as the precondition for self-divinization. Through such experiences, Alevis negotiate an ongoing tension between the desire to spread muhabbet among broader audiences and across international boundaries on the one hand, and the requirement to demarcate these rituals as privileged realms of embodied esoteric knowledge on the other
Vivian Bi (University of Pennsylvania)
Fatty but not greasy, lean but not dry: Making pork in Beijing’s urban postmodern
While Beijing's city government banned woodstoves due to wood burning’s effects on ambient air pollution, a single woodstove remains by the entrance of Jinzhan West Village in northeastern Beijing with a single function — to make braised pork hock. This paper attends to the causal and comparative grounds (Kockelman 2022) of how braised pork hock has come to command this unspoken exception to high modernist urban planning (Scott 1998, Smith 2021) in Beijing. I begin by outlining how a plate of cold cuts were transformed into a national symbol of Beijing nativeness wherein the technical act of making pork signifies a cultural act that makes claims to history and place. Drawing from an anthropology of intensities, I extend practices of cooking and eating braised pork hock to a meta-discursive language of scarcity and excess and its facilitation of social difference in Beijing. I then turn to how braised pork hock’s cultural productivity encounters shifting conditions of production and consumption in Beijing today, as “not just static expressions of social relationships or ideas about the meaning of the world, [but] instruments in an on-going process of social action.” (Firth 1973:261). Finally, I return to the woodstove to consider how an understanding of braised pork hock’s resistance to electrification involves coming to terms with imaginations of the past as much as imaginations of the future.
Karelle Hall (Rutgers University)
Feeding Our Futures: Memory and Aspirations of Lenapehoking
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.
Panel 2: Commensurating Emblems
Luke Fleming (University of Montreal)
Analog effects, digital substrates: Honorific degree and the structure of register repertoires
Linguistic anthropologists have recently turned to the investigation of the quantities as well as the qualities of social semiosis (cf. Harkness 2015). This work has focused, in particular, on metadiscourses that compare and contrast – or commensurate – semiotic intensities (Kockelman 2016a, 2016b, Carruthers 2017a, 2017b). In this presentation I offer a complementary perspective on this important problem, one that focuses on the repertoire structure of semiotic registers and its role in fostering the analog (or by-degrees) meanings of indexical signs (Agha 2007). My study draws upon a global-comparative survey of kinship avoidance registers – ways of speaking and acting that are understood, within particular sociocultural worlds, as appropriately respectful and restrained modes of relating to kinship-defined others (e.g., Merlan 1997, Stasch 2003). Through fine-grained analysis of practices of name avoidance and honorific pronoun use, as well as non-verbal, gestural repertoires linked to eye-gaze avoidance, I show that different degrees of interpersonal restraint and respect are enregistered in a convergent manner cross- culturally. Avoidance repertoires that enact heightened respect consistently encompass and augment less stringent avoidance repertoires. (So, for instance, Agta of northeast Cayagan, Philippines, enact respect to senior consanguineal kin by not referring to them by personal name. This practice is encompassed but also augmented in showing respect towards in-laws. For these kin, speakers avoid using the name of the in-law but also the common words from which the name is formed [Mayfield 1987].) This principle of formal encompassment may be iteratively applied creating a series of avoidance levels (reminiscent, then, of speech level phenomena in honorific registers not specifically keyed to kinship [cf. Agha 1998:191, n. 6/7]). Globally, register repertoire structure has a diagrammatic architecture which motivates an analogy between indexical forms and social functions; the range of signs which a person avoids with respect to a particular indexical focus is an iconic sign of the degree of respect which he or she enacts towards that social alter through avoidance practice.
Joanne Baron (Bard Early Colleges)
Interpreting Maya Hieroglyphic References to Wahy Sorcery
In 1989, epigraphers discovered an ancient Maya hieroglyph reading wahy. This term is very difficult to translate into English, but in modern Maya communities, wahys are powerful sorcerers with the ability to transform themselves into animals at night in order to carry out mischief or evil deeds. The decipherment of the glyph has revealed the persistence of these beliefs over thousands of years, but it has raised questions about what role they played in ancient Maya society. Traditionally, epigraphic analysis of Maya hieroglyphic texts has focused on revealing the denotational content of individual inscriptions, rather than their wider social effects on alignment and footing. I hope to move toward a broader text-level analysis of the wahy phenomenon by analyzing a genre of painted Maya pottery that depicts these creatures and labels them with accompanying hieroglyphic captions. Many of these captions refer to wahys as belonging to specific political entities. By attending to the genre as a whole, as well as the face-to-face interactions in which painted pottery circulated, I hope to explore the political ramifications of wahy sorcery.
Xinyi Wu (University of Pennsylvania)
From “Playfulness” to “Resistance”: Indexical Inversion of Crazy Talk in China
This article examines the enregisterment process of a speech style among Chinese youth, Crazy Talk, which originated in 2021. Young people incorporated the textual segments of the dramatic actor’s lines in popular Chinese soap operas in the 2000s, classic literature, and translationese as co-occurring signs (Agha, 2007) to compose speech plays. Typified as “Crazy Talk”, it was initially used for amusement in online conversations with intimate friends and customer service providers. Along with the active co-creations and further circulation of Crazy Talk on the Internet, young people used citations of its variants under different conditions of role inhabitance, reflexively reanimating its tokens while distancing themselves from the “playful craziness”(Nakassis, 2016). However, during the great lockdown in 2022, Chinese authoritative news agencies and self-owned bloggers have ideologically constructed the associations between Crazy Talk practices with “remedy for mental breakdowns” and “resistance against domestic policies and morality”, respectively. With the newly mediatized indexical order, the range of object repertoires under this meta-sign has been expanded to include more discursive practices against Chinese traditional moral norms. By analyzing the repertoires of Crazy Talk, its textual effects in interactions, and the metapragmatic comments from different groups, I argue that the embedded citations of Crazy Talk texts in use reflexively mark users’ self-positioning. The discontinuity between its direct indexicality in interactions and widely-perceived indirect indexicality (Ochs, 1992) reveals an indexical inversion (Inoue, 2004) which has been strategically constructed to promote certain sociocultural ideologies in current China.
Panel 3: Performing selves and others
Soojin Kim (Harvard University)
The Meaning of Names and Naming: Analyzing Social Relations in Anonymous Live Streaming-Commenting Websites
This paper examines the tension between identity and anonymity in the (quasi-)anonymous websites of the Korean live streaming platform (“AfreecaTV”) and the relevant anonymous forum (“DC Inside”). In these internet spaces, there are two major types of identifiers of the online participants who leave comments on the chat board: the nickname given by oneself and the collective name enregistered by others. In the period of my two-year online fieldwork, nicknames here were non-fixed identifiers of the actors behind the screen, in that one could have plural nicknames at the same time and change them whenever they wanted. At the same time, collective names were assigned by others to the actants, invoking a “sudden awareness” (Wilf 2019) of the noise-like, phatic live comments. By analyzing when and how such names and name changes are recognized among online participants, I argue that the act of naming is the tactic to create and disguise one’s online traces, allowing them to transit their footings in real-time faceless interactions. The following analysis examines the indexical relations among the names to demonstrate the constant production of the ‘otherness’ inside ‘us.’ Ultimately, this research shows how names and naming animate the social reproduction of online communities, where biological reproduction is impossible.
Robyn Tayler-Neu (University of California, Berkeley)
Un-sitely mediations: A gestural approach to the paradoxes of animated im/mobility
This paper examines how auteur animation filmmakers reflexively cite and thereby reanimate gestures, making them speak to broader geopolitical realities that enfold artists and audiences alike. While my larger research comprises over 18 months of fieldwork with filmmakers in Berlin and at international screenings, here I focus on two scenes in the animated short film, Have a Nice Dog! (2020), by Damascus-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Jalal Maghout. In the first scene, a man sits in front of a computer, fingers rapidly clicking as he pastes an image of himself into an iconic Parisian vista. In the second scene, the same man stumbles down a nightmarish tunnel, confronted by a stream of eerily distorted emojis and a pair of sauntering fingers. Together these scenes highlight the paradoxical im/mobility of contemporary artists and their works, in a context defined by globalized media and increasing political “deglobalization.” My analysis builds upon discussions of citationality (Nakassis 2013, 2016; Derrida 1982) and gesture (Lempert 2019), foregrounding the ways that animation-filmic citations can displace, recontextualize, and thereby reanimate gestures. At the same time, I extend theorizations of animation (Silvio 2010, 2019; Manning & Gershon 2013) by emphasizing the chiasm of freedom and impediment that underpins animated distributions of agency (cf. Gell 1997, Enfield & Kockelman 2017).
Zhuoli Jenny Gao (University of Pennsylvania)
Service Branding through Self Branding: The Case of Study Abroad Agency in China
Pursuing an international higher education in Western English-speaking countries has been a life choice more and more middle-class background Chinese students make. Due to differences in educational systems, most students do not have adequate knowledge about the application. Therefore, they turn to the instructions of educational agents who work on the construction and presentation of the self of a qualified educational candidate that will be recognized by university admission officers. A large number of educational agency companies have emerged, constituting one of the most lucrative business sections in China. This paper explores the advertising practices of educational agency companies that typify the sign values of the consultant services as social indexicals of use and users for the target market (Agha, 2011). I study the most popular genre adopted in the social media campaigns—the personal narrative of successful past applicants. I show that the personal narrative is the precipitate of a mediatized metasemiotic practice (Agha, 2015), and the personal narratives as discursive artifacts borrow fragments of a genre that is familiar to the target market during the economic booming period, which enables the effective dissemination of the commodity fractions.
Panel 4: Episodes of Statecraft
Éléonor Guy (University of Montreal)
Performing Identity & Resistance Through Language Choices: The Reindexicalizations of Kazakh in Astana
Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is a highly multilingual city. Despite Kazakh being the official language, Russian is the main language used in public spaces and English takes a growing place as an index of modernity. I argue there are three re-indexicalizations of the Kazakh language in recent years: 1) the domestic register of Kazakh is understood as an essentializing feature, 2) access to the emerging professional register is a new index of education, 3) using the Kazakh language in public spaces is becoming a pragmatic act of resistance in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War. My fieldwork took place in Astana, where I carried out observations of the social interactions and of the linguistic landscape as well as life stories interviews. As an inheritance from the late 20th century Soviet linguistic policies and ideologies, Kazakh is mainly used within families and to discuss topics deemed as “traditional”. The domestic register of Kazakh used in those contexts remains indexical of rurality and of a lack of education. The large efforts to revitalize the Kazakh language undertaken by the Kazakhstani state led to the creation of a professional register, whose good command is increasingly required to access governmental employment. I argue that although this register is not commonly used, access to it has become an index of education and social status. Finally, since February 2022, the Russo-Ukrainian war is indirectly affecting Kazakhstan’s linguistic ecosystem. My research shows the war legitimizes the use of Kazakh in public spaces in a wider array of registers and fragmentary forms. Speaking Kazakh can now be resignified as a small act of resistance, within reach, yet meaningful. The Kazakh language enacts resistance against possible claims by Russia about the physical borders and against the overflow of Russians fleeing the military mobilization, the former colonizers who sometimes still behave as such. It is still to see if this last reindexicalization can be rewritten to consolidate communities by and for themselves.
Nooshin Samimi (University of Pennsylvania)
A Three-pronged Approach: On Revising Directive No. 15
This paper presents data from my ethnographic research on the statistical construction of race and ethnicity in the United States. It centers on the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) formal process to revise Directive No. 15 which provides standard classifications for record-keeping, collection, and presentation of data on race and ethnicity across federal statistical agencies. This process is referred to by my interlocutors as the "three-pronged approach", an integral part of which is obtaining public comments on a set of initial recommendations put forth by the interagency working group. First, I examine the formal criteria underlying the review as detailed in the text of the Federal Register Notice to solicit public comment. Next, I consider the methods by which public comments will be aggregated into a set of final recommendations. Finally, drawing on OMB's town halls to hear from the public as an example of unfettered free speech, I use this case study as a crucial point of departure for inquiry into freedom of expression and its broader implications for governance in Western liberal democratic institutions.
Joshua Babcock (University of Chicago)
Varieties of Singlish Experience: Authority, Image-texts, and Infrastructures of Feeling
Since the 1960s, Singaporean Colloquial English, or Singlish, has been multiply and ambivalently typified: as a vehicle for and threat to nation-building (Wee 2018; Babcock 2022); a “uniquely Singaporean” brandable commodity (Hiramoto 2019); an embarrassment on the global stage (Babcock and Huggins 2021; Babcock 2022); and an object of descriptive fascination and prescriptivist denigration. This paper considers the contested politics of classification and definition that have rendered Singlish an authoritatively “distinctive” (Lo and Reyes 2009; Chun and Lo 2020) object, but it also explores the ways that Singlish comes to be deeply felt today. I ask: alongside its status as a target of reference-and-predication, why and how does Singlish-use consistently produce embodied affects and responses—amused laughter, disgust, or stunned silence—when it rises to the level of awareness at all? This paper explores classificatory and definitional politics within and across locations constructed as both internal and external to co-naturalized (Rosa and Flores 2017) Singaporean racial and linguistic authenticities. Drawing on recent theorizations of aesthetic textuality and the image-text (Nakassis 2019) in linguistic anthropology and infrastructures of feeling (Gilmore 2022) in abolitionist geography, I consider how Singlish gets felt in addition to how it gets (meta)linguistically (ab)used.
Matthew Aviso (Yale-NUS College)
Bureaucratic Racialization: Documents, Translation, and the Filipino Chinese Migrant in Singapore
In multiracial Singapore, the immigration bureaucracy calibrates Permanent Resident (PR) intake to maintain racial proportions in the Chinese-majority country. Racially Chinese transnational migrants like the Filipino Chinese, therefore, possess a higher chance of attaining PR status than applicants of other races. But although Filipino Chinese upbringing and physical appearance would typically be racialized as Chinese, this paper shows that race is evaluated differently in the Singaporean PR application: the written documents Filipino Chinese submit alongside the application form could call their self-identification as Chinese into question. Based on 11 cumulative months of ethnographic engagement with the Filipino Chinese community of Singapore, this paper accounts for such a phenomenon by proposing the term ‘bureaucratic racialization’, a process in which written documents—as the central element and tool of bureaucracy—produce meaning independent of other racial markers to construct migrant racial identity for the state. This paper conceives of bureaucratic racialization as a state-driven act of translation—a semiotic process that effaces contexts behind the written signifiers on documents to establish migrant racial identity, enlisting the signified racial identity in further racialized state assessment. Ultimately, this paper nuances an understanding of the racial politics central to the bureaucratic machinations of transnational migration—in Singapore, Southeast Asia, and beyond.
Panel 5: Voicing Personae
Ally Rosen (University of Pennsylvania)
Feminist “Shadow Conversations”: Voicing The Factory Worker’s Double in the 20th century Housework Debate
In 1972, Italian socialist feminists Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James published an essay, “Women and the Subversion of the Community.” Proclaiming “the housewife as the central figure,” and her domestic work as deserving of a wage, the text would spark what became known amongst Marxist feminists as the “housework debate”, and the “Wages for Housework” movement. This paper reanalyzes this intellectual and political debate in speech chain perspective (Agha 2007) and theorizes it as something of a feminist “shadow conversation” (Irvine 1996). Neither concerned with defining what household labor is, nor with settling the question of whether household labor is or is not “productive” – it traces an emergent voicing structure that grounded pragmatic counterclaims to Marxian conceptions of labor along a series of intertextually linked events in the late 20th century. Moving from Dalla Costa and James (1972), to a response by Angela Davis (1981), I sketch a semiotics of contrast, comparison, and re-evaluation, whereby housework is multiply voiced through its comparison with factory work, housewives through their comparison with industrial workers, and finally, domestic workers through their comparison with housewives. Concluding with Sylvia Wynter’s final analysis (1982), I suggest that such counterclaims remained confined within a governing Enlightenment frame of reference. The paper speculates on what a semiotic anthropology might lend to theorizing questions of gendered labor—its pragmatics, and metapragmatics.
Elizabeth Crane (Rutgers University)
Discerning Characteristically Chinese Philanthropy/Cishan
A 19th century neologism, “cishan (慈善)” entered Mandarin Chinese when Christian missionaries entered China, establishing “philanthropy” as Western import. After examining the ideological implications of discerning (i.e. recognizing the presence of) indigenous Chinese philanthropy, this paper draws upon ethnographic research inside the 'Elite Philanthropy Program' in Suzhou, as well as textual analysis of course materials, to theorize the semiotic labor of program organizers as they work to discern (i.e. distinguish from the unmarked American standard) a philanthropy iconic of traditional Chinese culture. Ultimately, I conclude that program organizers are not only positioning philanthropy/cishan as index of Chinese cultural advancement or even icon of distinctively Chinese culture, but that they are going so far as to conflate Chinese philanthropy and traditional Chinese culture. Elite Chinese philanthropists are thus interpellated as bearers of traditional culture, as they are called to perpetuate the Chinese nation into the future, and further propel its global rise.
Suzie Telep (University of Pennsylvania)
''Speaking like a White person'': analyzing the co-construction of language, race and the body through racial passing
This paper analyzes the co-construction of language, race and the body through the semiotics of whitening among Cameroonian anti-racist activists in Paris, France. By whitening, I refer to a form of racial passing consisting in the imitation of language practices of White people by Black subjects. My reflection is anchored in the theoretical frameworks of ''embodied sociolinguistics'' (Bucholtz and Hall 2016) and ''raciosemiotics'' (Krystal 2020). The analysis draws on an ethnographic study of the ''raciosemiotic labor'' (Smalls 2020) – that is, the discursive (de)construction of indexical meanings associated with the racial categories ''Black'' and ''African'' – conducted in Paris by a young anti-racist activist from Cameroon. I show how, through the performance of a ''Black anti-racist aesthetics'' (Tate 2016) combining a range of discursive, bodily and phonetic signs, the racialized subject criticizes a ''racialized regime of representation'' of Black male bodies (Hall 1997) in contemporary France. Thus, he aims to deconstruct the apparent naturalness of race, and produces the counter model of a masculine, elite ''Blackness'' - the Afropolitan persona. Based on this case study, my goal is to show that, by focusing on the co-construction of language, race and the body, we can get a better understanding of the ambivalences of agency (Ahearn 2001) and shed light on the permanent tension between reproduction of ethno-racial and gender norms and possibilities for emancipation. I also demonstrate that, by adopting a semiotic approach to race as an embodied sign, we can refine our understanding of the mutually constitutive relationships between language and the body.