The Sense of Action: Dialogues between Semiotics and Anthropology
(in collaboration with the LISaV - International Semiotics Laboratory of Venice)
Dr. Tatsuma Padoan, SOAS, University of London, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Franciscu Sedda, Università di Roma “Tor Vergata” (email@example.com)
It was 1923, when the British-Polish anthropologist B. Malinowski, in an essay later highlighted by Benveniste (1974) himself, attempted to define language as a “mode of action”, and meaning as an active, pragmatic and emotional force, which escapes from a purely logic and cognitive understanding of speech. Several years later, Greimas and Courtés (1979) in their Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary, invited to analyse bodily behaviours in terms of narrative programmes and multimodal texts, by extracting semiotic models adopted to describe fictional action, in order to give rise to a “semiotics of action” (ad vocesAction, Gestuality, Semiotic Practices). More recently, the anthropologist M. Silverstein (2004) has conceived a semiotic theory of ritual action based on the concepts of text and discourse, studying the poetic structure of interaction and the subject’s assumption of values through categories as diagram and indexicality, which are fully coextensive with the continental notions of semi-symbolic and enunciation. These are only some of the theoretical positions in common between semiotics and anthropology about the topic of action. Reflection of this topic in anthropology started from the ethnographic analysis of everyday behaviour among non-European people, and from the study of cultural phenomena as rite and ritualisation. In semiotics it started instead from the analysis of literary texts, originally folkloric (Propp) e mythological ones (Dumézil, Lévi-Strauss). We should not forget that the influence of Lévi-Strauss on Greimas has been fundamental for the development of semiotics, a discipline which still shares with anthropology an interest in the signification of social behaviours and lifestyles. This is evidenced by the recent ethnosemiotic projects triggered in Italy by M. Del Ninno (2007) and F. Marsciani (2007), who quote respectively the works of Lévi-Strauss and C. Geertz – the latter advocating in turn a semiotic definition of culture. Also, the theoretical reflection on passions, which in semiotics has followed and integrated considerations about action, found a parallel in anthropologists as C. Lutz e G. M. White (1986) already during the early years of its elaboration (see Fabbri 1987). This long story of criss-crossing between the two disciplines still continues in North American linguistic anthropology, in STS-related anthropology (influenced by Actor-Network-Theory) and in the perspectivism of E. Viveiros De Castro (1998) – based on Benveniste’s theory of enunciation and Deleuze’s semiotics. This workshop intends to take stock of the situation concerning the relationship between semiotics and anthropology, by investigating the meaningfulness of action within different genres of discourse (ritual, politics, everyday life, art, entertainment, professional world, etc…). Through an examination of this shared theoretical object, we shall attempt to understand whether, given the current state of research, it is possible to set a fruitful and productive dialogue for the future development of both the disciplines.
1) Alexander Mosquera, Universidad del Zulia. Facultad de Ciencias, Laboratorio de Investigaciones Semióticas y Antropológicas, “Dr. José Enrique Finol”. Venezuela, firstname.lastname@example.org
Semiótica del chiste en los rituales funerarios venezolanos
En la actualidad, es frecuente observar en los velorios de Venezuela una práctica que, indudablemente ya ha pasado a formar parte constitutiva de los rituales funerarios, independientemente de que dichos rituales sean se lleven a cabo en capillas velatorias (privadas) o en casas familiares: se trata del fenómeno de los chistes contados por los asistentes a esos rituales. Podrá parecer una contradicción de muy mal gusto ante un acontecimiento tan serio como la pérdida de un ser querido, pero lo cierto es que los chistes también han pasado a adquirir un rango simbólico dentro de las ceremonias fúnebres tradicionales. Por ello, el presente trabajo se plantea como objetivo general, explicar desde una perspectiva antroposemiótica –puesto que se aborda un hecho cultural y sus significaciones–, la presencia del chiste en los velorios como una máscara del hombre ante el fenómeno de la muerte. Para el cumplimiento de dicho objetivo central se recurrió a los aportes teórico-metodológicos de Van Gennep (2008), Peirce (1987), Augé (2000), Turner (1988) y Freud (2005). Paralelamente, se utilizó la técnica de la observación participante propia del método etnográfico (Mauss, 1947; Guber, 2006; Kottak, 2007) y netnográfico (Del Fresno, 2011), sobre la base de un enfoque epistemológico introspectivo-vivencial (Padrón Guillén, 2001, 2003). Las conclusiones obtenidas revelan, entre otras cosas, que los chistes contados en estos no lugares se traducen en una máscara, la cual se erige en un símbolo más del ritual funerario, cuya intencionalidad inconsciente pone de manifiesto el temor del hombre ante un fenómeno natural e inevitable que da cuenta de su finitud, además de expresar el deseo de romper con la relación directa muerte/dolor/depresión que en ese momento afronta la gente.
Palabras clave: Velorios, chistes, máscara, rituales funerarios, Antroposemiótica.
2) Antonio Perri, Università degli Studi di Napoli Suor Orsola Benincasa
Two aborted dialogues: K. L. Pike’s tagmemics and J. Fontanille’s semiotics of cultures
[Due dialoghi abortiti: la tagmemica di Pike e la semiotica delle culture di Fontanille]
Any inquiry into processes of cross-fertilization between academic disciplines is useful to single out the specific topics and issues on which such disciplines have converged, despite using different approaches and methods. However, focus on the situations where no such interchange has emerged is also crucial: uncovering the reasons of those failed dialogues is indeed helpful to detect, in often unexpected ways, the intrinsic limitations of specific theoretical proposals, as well as to pave the way for a possible reconsideration.
In this paper I will be dealing with two emblematic cases in which communication between semiotics and anthropology on the topic of action has failed, half a century lying between the two.
First, the “unified theory of the structure of human behaviour” which Kenneth L. Pike devised ever since the Fifties. While giving rise to considerable, long-lasting debate in the field of anthropology, Pike’s theory was almost completely ignored in the field of semiotics, despite the dense dialogue in which semiotics was involved with anthropology at the end of the Sixties, in search as it was for new foundations for an integrated semiotic approach to cultural phenomena.
Second, Jacques Fontanille’s “semiotics of cultures”, a theory which the French semiologist developed at the end of the Nineties out of an enriched version of the Greimasian generative model. This theory concerned hierarchical strata of integrated levels of relevance in meaningful human experience, including complex and ‘higher’ strata, that of humanly shaped objects as well as – more importantly in the context of a semiotics of action – those of situations-interactions and forms of life.
In my analysis I will try to show that reasons for both aborted dialogues have to be found in the intuitive understanding, accomplished by the discipline ‘receiving’ the theoretical stimulus, that some assumptions of the theory from the other field to be made common ground of reflection were somehow ‘outdated’. This was precisely the cause for the complete refusal of the theory proposed.
This is the case for Pike’s commitment to a structural logic of discrete units dictating the formal conditions which articulate units (the -emes) at hierarchic levels (more and more higher-layered): such an attitude, on the part of semioticians who finally came to refute a simplistic, analogical spread of the “phoneme metaphor”, prevented any serious analysis of Pike’s tagmemics.
As for Fontanille, his logic of integration between (still hierarchical) levels inherited from Benveniste’s Sémiologie de la langue was totally unsuitable for postmodern anthropology, the founding principle of which was the refusal of any generatively ordered model explaining the meaning of action.
However, careful reassessment of both proposals – whose heuristic potential will be tested here in a comparison with models of the logic of action issued from the area of structural-functional sociology – may provide useful cues towards the development of a “unified theory” of action as an intrinsically semiotic process.
3) Stefano Jacoviello (University of Siena)
Tommaso Sbriccoli (SOAS - University of London)
Now he talks, now he acts. Voice, action and subjectivity in two cases of asylum claiming in Italy
This contribution draws on the interdisciplinary work carried out by an anthropologist and a semiotician on a contemporary category of subalterns in our societies, the migrants. Our presentation will follow a group of them, the asylum seekers, through the procedure of claiming their status as refugees in Italy. We will focus on voice both as a discursive category and as a textual clue. Searching for voice within the texture of discourse, we will construct a model to describe the actions, both acted and suffered, by asylum seekers. As a result, we will be able to reflect on the relation between agency and subalternity and to the one, which runs in parallel, between subject, subjectivity and identity.
In this way, we hope that our work at the crossing of anthropology and semiotics will fruitfully contribute to this workshop’s ideas and discussion by providing a set of analytical tools and a particular perspective.
Stefano Jacoviello (PhD) teaches Semiotics of Culture and History of Music at the University of Siena. His research interests include music, fine and performing arts, intercultural translation. His works set semiotic methodology at the crossing with anthropology, aesthetics, history and theory of arts. He is involved as scientific coordinator in several international research projects on cultural heritage, identity, citizenship. Recent books: La rivincita di Orfeo. Esperienza estetica e semiotica del discorso musicale, Udine, Mimesis, 2013; with Tommaso Sbriccoli, Shifting Borders. European perspectives on Creolisation, (Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).
As a musician, he teaches at SienaJazz National Music Academy, and he writes music for stage and multimedia installations.
Tommaso Sbriccoli (PhD) is a political and legal anthropologist. He has been doing field research in Northern India since 2003, working mainly on rural and pastoral communities in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Main fields of interest have been those related to institutions and traditional justice. He thus focused his attention on the relations between traditional legal systems, state law, institutions, and conceptions about person. In 2008 he opened a new fieldwork research in Italy on refugees and the Italian process of claiming asylum, developing together with Stefano Jacoviello an interdisciplinary methodological framework of text and discourse analysis. With Jacoviello he published “The case of S: Elaborating the “Right” Narrative to fit Normative/Political Expectations in Asylum Procedure in Italy.” (in Holden, L., Cultural Expertise and Litigation, London, Routledge, 2011)
4) Matteo Baraldo, University for Foreigners, Perugia, (email@example.com)
Zerihun Mulatu, Addis Ababa University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
About Alemayehu Mogos, an unknown Ethiopian semiologist. Preliminary contribution to semiotics from Ethiopia.
This paper acknowledges a small yet significant contribution to semiotics made by an obscure Ethiopian literate called Alemayehu Mogos. The textual fragments under analysis represent some pioneering findings deriving from a preliminary probing into the field of Ethiopian humanities. The sources range from the IV century text, a philosophical work from the Greek, the Fisalgwos (aka the Physiologus in the classical world), written in ancient Ethiopic, to a more recent dissertation on qəne, a pseudo-rhetorical-philosophical form used in Ethiopian tradition. This was described in greater detail by Alemayehu Mogos, and presented at a conference in Addis Ababa in 1966 (Mogos, 1966).
The specific aim of such deep delving into texts is to unveil the autochtonous speculations on semiotic concepts and studies.
The result of the research aims at highlighting a specific semiotic paradigm in the form of cluster of pre-philosophical practices (medical, magical, poetical, rhetorical, and anthropological) blended with explicit sign theories as those specifically elaborated by philosophers (Manetti, 2013).
Conversely, there are scholars such as Lagopoulos and Stylianoudi who, to a certain extent have already offered their contribution, systematically analyzing some specific features derived from Ethiopian historical data, identifying a system of correlations between the organization of meaning and space (Lagopoulos and Stylianoudi, 2001), thus paving the way in terms of method to implement research framework.
In the approach and method adopted by our survey we have redefined the nature of the above-called 'certain aspects' (i.e. the space-related concepts and ideas) into a series of key words about semiotic-related terms, concepts or assumptions.
In this paper we present some findings about qəne, a specifically Ethiopian sign system using a linguistic language as its medium which seems to perfectly represent one item from the cluster of above mentioned practices. The item is then consequently structured to configurate the space necessary for the construction of the semiotic paradigm.
The non-secondary level of reflection is, conversely, to assess the possibility of existence of an ‘Ethiopian semiotics’ (i.e. what we referred to as 'specific paradigm'), whereas its merely possible contribution to theories on signs at global level, would be equally impacting.
The two positions are not self-excluding, and, as to the level of their combination, more definitive answers may be given as the digging into textual corpora progresses and comes to conclusive phase. This clearly calls for the emergence of wider studies, particularly conducted by local researchers in the challenging scenario of global semiotics, nowadays heavily overbalanced towards the Western concepts and practices. To put it more simply, in terms of questions and answers, must we rely on a local epistemological grid when dealing with interpretations of local and native sign systems? An example will be given by comparing the etymology of the lexeme /mystery/ in Greek and Geez (ancient Ethiopic) languages, highlighting the different semes. In the case of Greek, significance is related to 'something unspeakable' from μυεω ('I close the eyes, the mouth'), while in Ethiopian context - or grid - it is to be considered as leading to a thousand possible interpretations (ýamӓsṭӓrӓ [sӓṭӓrӓ]thus conveying the meaning of interpreting to something which is speakable to some extent, albeit covering many different aspects. The case of qəne itself may well epitomize the difficulties one encounters, from rendering the word qəne to a transleme or translational equivalent (either literal and semantic, or pragmatic and dynamic), in any language, when dealing with such intriguing and totally Ethiopian texts.
Starting with the analysis of some fragments from the work of Ethiopian scholar Alemayehu Mogos, acknowledged by the authors as the first Ethiopian semiologist, the following observations are aimed at presenting the initial stage of the process of exploration of factors and data-mining, the consequent conceptual framework, and some preliminary directions and findings related to semiotics as gathered from within Ethiopian written culture.
Matteo Baraldo is a Ph.D. candidate in Book Science and Writing Science, University for Foreigners, Perugia, Italy. The title of his Ph.D. thesis is ‘Writings of Healings. A semiotic field-investigation on the written amulets of Ethiopia’. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Advertising Techniques with a dissertation “On quotation”. He holds a M.Sc. in International Communications with a dissertation on The Hermetic Garage of Moebius. 'Communicating' a world. He has been active in Ethiopia since 2001 as the coordinator for many development and cultural projects under the patronage of EU, USAID and other agencies with specific reference to cultural heritage conservation and promotion. His interests are in the field of comparative cross-cultural semiotics, ethnographic semiotics, semiotics of writing and visual-culture and comparative imagery studies.
In 1997, Zerihun Mulatu Gizaw has studied the Traditional Ethiopian Church education subject known as “qəne” (Ethiopic philosophical poem). He graduated in Ziway, from the School of Traditional Ethiopian Church education and clergies training center and currently is entitled “Liqӓ-ṭӓbbӓbt” ‘the master of the wise men’ in order to indicate that he is able to teach and compose “qəne” not figuratively but philosophically. In addition to such high qualification in the Traditional Ethiopian Church Education System, in 2004, he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology (B.Th) from the Holy Trinity Theological College, Addis Ababa. Subsequently, in 2008, he has gained an M.A degree (A comparative study of the early New Testament and the recent New Testament) in GəŸəz philology from the School of Graduate Studies of Addis Ababa University. Currently, (i.e. since 2009) he is in the process of completing a Ph.D. engaged in a textual scholarship of the Ethiopic“MäṢḤAfä Fälasfa”, ‘Book of Philosophy’ at the School of Graduate Studies of Addis Ababa University.
5) Giovanni Spissu PhD from University of Manchester (email@example.com)
Defamiliarisation and ethnographic observation
Viktor Shklovsky considered the greatest obstacle to knowing reality to be habitual perception, born of an automatic, regular viewpoint. Russian formalists considered defamiliarisation (Ostranenie) as a way to achieve a fresh perception of the world. I argue that the principle of Ostranenie can be applied to the ethnographic research of urban phenomenon, which can generate a process of defamiliarisation between the subjects involved in the research. Taking inspiration from Russian formalists' ideas, I adopted a method of ethnographic observation of the city that sought to generate a defamiliarised viewpoint among its inhabitants. In research conducted in Cape Town I used urban movement as a tactic of investigation to try to observe the relationship between the city's inhabitants and its urban spaces beyond a habitual relationship. This experiment generated a fresh perception of the city's places, which were described and represented ‘as if for the first time’.
7) Giacomo Festi (NABA, Milan)
Between actions and practices: the split semiotic eye and the anthropological gaze
In this communication we would like to explore the possible continuities between semiotic models of action in relationship to the recent research about practices (see Rastier 2001, Fontanille 2008, Landowski 2005 and Basso Fossali 2008) and certain paths of research in anthropology (for instance, Descola 2006), aiming at proposing a conceptual offering for anthropologists. Beyond the acknowledgment of the meaningful character of action, the open question is which kind of interpretations has been historically produced, considering then which kind of semantic dimensions has been involved, which tensions eventually recognized and shaped, which relationships debated. We would like to explore the hypothesis that in the history of anthropology a descriptive and interpretative major split has been present, and this divide can maybe find an unprecedented analogy inside semiotics.
From one side, practices meant to delimit a field of actions oriented toward some finalization, ruled by a cultural readability, played on a relative iconic stabilization of the action inside cultural frames of semantization (see Ricoeur 1986 for a philosophical discussion). From the semiotic point of view, the cultural grid that permits to acknowledge a meaning for the action resembles to what, inside the semiotics of the visible, has been conceptualized as figurative level or language, since the acknowledgment of a given figure depends on a cultural filter. The field work of the anthropologist has partially been the reconstruction of this figurative level of the practice, first of all in order to make it more accessible to the readers. Nevertheless, this level of organization of action becomes the support for narrative and strategic dimensions, calling then for further interpretations. All the rhetoric of action, the relationship between present and absent scenarios, the concurrent layering of semantic universes, find here its place, where to locate a lot of relevant anthropological contributions in the interpretation of practice (among other, I will discuss examples from Turner and Zempleni).
From another side, it is always possible to observe a single unit of action, as a component of a practice, in order to question its contribution to the meaning of the practice (see the conceptualization of agency). This second version is more interested in the open, productive, undetermined and plural character of action (see the exemplar case of study in Geertz 1973 about the failure of a Javanese funeral). In a certain way, this move resembles to what happened inside semiotics when the plastic level of organization of visual texts were taken into consideration, as different from the figurative one. The action is the substance (the variable trait) of the form of the practice or the action is to the plastic level as the practice is to the figurative. That said, the problem is which kind of aspects permit to qualify the "plasticity" of the action: we would like to explore some of them starting from ethnographic works.
8) Matteo Modena (CUBE, University of Bologna)
"Why should a person drown?"
On 27th October 2009 Giorgios Mavripidis, a fisherman from Skala Sikaminias (Lesbos Island), dived into the Aegean Sea in the desperate attempt to save some refugees from drowning. He is one of those people who act in virtue of some particular areas of affective junction, valorised and themed with the lexemes "principles", "solidarity", "heroism", "empathy", "humanity" etc... Such cases are often associated by the psychosocial studies to moments of pure exceptionality. For a semiotics of action, however, it is necessary to define and analyse the syntactic and semantic substrate that circumscribes the dimension of a sudden "empathetic" act, i.e. an immediate and unexpected action, not foreseen by the "daily" discursive configuration. According to the ethnosemiotic approach, it is therefore important to understand the process of legitimation of the significance of such an act, by investigating the moments that led to the action of these men and of many other actors linked by the Mediterranean tragedy and by a shared activity connected to the sea.
The ultimate goal is to understand how the subject-body enters into a pattern of narrative and pathemic meanings, ready to produce a positively sanctioned action in an emergency state, to be placed within an orientating topical category such as passion/reason. In these cases, some questions arise both with respect to the semiotics of passions, and to the ability of a text (in this case a 'tragic' one) to have grip "by the power-absorption capacity and the transformation of the subject through the feeling, rightly more than through the thinking: a symbolic efficacy that seems to skip some control mechanisms - internal but mainly external - of the subject, translated into action rather than reflection" (Pezzini I., Il testo galeotto, Roma, Meltemi, 2007, p. 28). Hence the interest in this unusual and unexpected status within a canonical narrative pattern of the everyday life: the emergence of unexpected acting, an extraordinary rupture of the speech and of its capacity to make semantics and syntax consistent.
We would like to rebuild this "sense in action", since it represents a positive emblem within the general carnage involving migrants in the Mediterranean. We are interested in a semiotics of untimeliness, devoid of ritualized or daily discursive configurations, which disregards the expectations of the 'subject' itself. An unexpected moment within a dynamic in which the rhythm creates actual tensive effects, that cannot be separated from a “narrating space”. We believe that this research (started in July 2014 on the island of Lesbos) will show that the act of Giorgios cannot be understood without considering the 'everyday life' related to his fisherman activity, the everyday life of the island (not only linked to the thematic of refugees), and the isotopies existing between the two moments.
To account for this problem, we will consider the semiotics related to: (i) the outstanding experience of Giorgios Mavripidis (as it was narrated, serialized, remembered and reworked by the subject himself and by other media); (ii) territorial and natural aspects, including those plastic and figurative elements typical of the "natural world" that can be considered as drivers in the action undertaken; (iii) the set of signs produced from the local culture around the issue of "illegal landings", contacting refugees’ reception centres as well as academic institutions interested in the dynamics of the migrants’ routes on the island; (iv) the daily experience of these fishermen, the narrative sequences designed to indicate a possible appearance of semantic and/or syntactic continuity/discontinuity between the "everyday" and the "tragedy", based on “direct observation” and interviews with the fishermen’s community. The research will be carried out in collaboration with the University of the Aegean (Mytilene, Lesvos) - Department of Social Anthropology and History, in the hope of reaching some conclusions in the investigation of the symbolic language referred to the daily refugees tragedy (compared also with Lampedusa and other similar places). The challenge is to understand how exceptional phenomena of solidarity account for coherent, incoherent and yet complex backgrounds of values not simply linked to a personal narration. We wish to bring to the conference in Sofia a first analysis on these issues.
9) Stefano Aroldi, PhD Candidate, Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”
The role of language in cognition. A new perspective on an old question
The inquiry into the active role of language in shaping cognition is a classic issue in the tradition of North American linguistic anthropology, usually referred to as the “linguistic relativity hypothesis” and associated with the names of Sapir and Whorf. In more recent times John Lucy, an American scholar currently working in the same research tradition, has recast the entire question of how language influence thought, spelling out three levels of potential influences: i) at a more general level, he speaks of a semiotic relativity of the human thought with respect to other species lacking a code with a significant symbolic component (in addition to iconic or indexical ones); ii) then, the classic view of linguistic relativity is renamed structural relativity, which concerns the diversity of natural languages and implies that the way in which we think about reality is influenced by the structure of the particular natural language we speak; iii) finally, discursive or functional relativity stems from diversity in language functions and usages in the course of discursive interaction.
The present contribution focuses mainly on semiotic relativity, highlighting how some recent proposals in the broad field of cognitive sciences, such as the extended mind theorized by Andy Clark, converge towards a view of human language as an arbitrary symbolic system which is transformative of internal mental operations by means of external (bodily, environmental and also socio-cultural) scaffolding. Thus, in this view, language is largely responsible for some specific features of cognition unique to humans. Following Lucy, we argue that the arbitrariness of language (its symbolic component) is a key condition for enabling language to add new dimensions to human cognition. Furthermore, the arbitrariness of language implies both diversity across human communities and cultural transmission, two points of particular relevance for both semiotics and anthropology.
Although the focus is primarily on semiotic relativity, the other two levels are also involved. For we sketch some suggestions in order to show how the semiotic relativity, while on the one hand allows structural relativity to arise, on the other hand makes it possible to overcome linguistic (i.e. structural) determinism, by exploiting, in the discursive interaction, the metalinguistic function, which ultimately is made available by virtue of the semiotic peculiarities of human language.
10) Federico Montanari (CUBE, Universita' di Bologna)
11) Luca Frattura (CUBE, Universita' di Bologna)