Let me begin this by introducing myself – I am a cultural anthropologist with training also in linguistic anthropology and archaeology. Most of my research is focused cultural identity, and all of my fieldwork has been (and continues to be) in Ireland, including Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) communities. I became interested in the possibilities of semiotic theory (especially that of Charles Sanders Peirce) for research on cultural identity through the work of Val Daniel and others, and Peircean semiotic has been one of the main frameworks for my approach to anthropology. It would probably be a bit of hubris to claim that all anthropology is semiotic anthropology, but if Terence Deacon is right, and if we are a “symbolic species”, then there might be something to that claim.

Now, about race: one particular chapter of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, “The Fact of Blackness”, has always intrigued me (and others as well). What Fanon is describing, I think (at least in part) is how a non-arbitrary fact (let’s say a phenotypic characteristic) becomes a social rule, so that the ‘facticity’ becomes the leading principle for all subsequent sociocultural interpretation (and racial profiling would be one example of this kind of logical error, I think): race has never been ‘about’ the color of a person’s skin (for example), but rather what the color of a person’s skin represents – what it points to. Fanon describes (if I remember correctly) how ‘blackness’ accretes onto his skin when he enters a room, through myths, fears, anecdotes, and jokes. The ‘fact’ (of blackness, e.g.) becomes a regulative principle (only because it is arbitrated by people to be so). Thus, a semiotic ideology emerges. And ‘race – as a discursive form through which knowledge production about people occurs, through which social hierarchies are formed and maintained, and through which power is expressed – is a semiotic ideology that operates in relation to the conventional qualities of certain kinds of facts. But I’m still trying to sort out how. My hunch is that semiotic theory can help us understand the complexities of racial practices (and racial identities). I have some early, barely-formed preliminary thoughts and questions on some connections, and would love to have some dialogue, feedback (especially critical), and insights into others’ research –

Because racial groups often include a sense of ‘fictive kinship’, there is something about the connection between discourses and practices of kinship and those of race/racialized communities. And both, not coincidentally, ride upon or operate in part upon biogenetic metaphors. The iconic similarity of these two sets of conventions (metaphors are iconic Thirds) – race and kinship – is something that makes racial ideologies especially persistent, I think. Let me be clear, I understand ‘race’, in its anthropological sense, to be a sociocultural, historically-developed human construct, but one that includes reckoning and arbitration about certain human aspects and practices, including the biogenetic (phenotypic and genotypic), related to ongoing interpretations/discussions about human biological evolution and contemporary human biodiversity. What other realms of social practice and cultural meaning operate through race, in specific locales and conditions? What else is mediated/represented by race? What other social forms does race operate through? And why?

And finally, I know one must always keep in mind the historical and cultural specificity of what we mean by race – one of my current interests is in how racial identity and racial reckoning is occurring in contemporary Ireland (and to some extent, contemporary Europe), in ways that differ from racial practices in the U.S. (the comparative framework I’m most familiar with).

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Really, I've got a marathon's length to run before I feel truly comfortable theorizing on semiotic. However, ever since reading Barthes' "Myth Today," I've been fascinated with both the more venerable semiology and semiotic. I have to say that I'm really interested in American Pragmatism, as well as existentialism and phenomenology (long way to go there as well!).

I used semiotic theory for my undergraduate honors thesis, mostly in terms of helping to organize an interactive-emergent oriented commentary on the practices and worldview of a particular Pentacostal church. My starting point is that any negotiation of the world around us has to be shaped in tangent with understanding, and that understanding is never a simple given, nor is it complete. For example, glossolalia seems not to fit in well, in terms of a semiotic approach. Indeed, from a linguistic standpoint, what I heard was mostly composed of a simple morphological spectrum, really of phonemes and morphemes that are very easy for the American English palette. There were no meanings directly tied to those sounds. Yet the utterance of those sounds, as an act of worship, was itself very much pregnant with meaning.

When you go back to look at the underlying (Barthean) mythology, you find that there are layers of meaning that refer to, and are referenced by, the worshipers understanding of scripture in the Second book of Acts. There is definitely a self-sustaining web of signification. So, while the sounds corresponded to no particular meaning, the act itself was understood in a framework based on practice, which was the instantiating element.

Now I'll admit something not very anthropologist-like. I was eating lunch outside today, when I saw a young white man walking along, listening to his iPod and pantomiming as if he was rapping. I started to think about the concept of "acting like you're black," which led me to think about recent musings on Foucault's concept of power, polarization of choices into discrete units, and concomitant consensus (here of racial identities). Really, it struck me that no one ever accuses white boys of acting white (at least not in the same way). But why not? It's not like there's some default, essential mindframe that emerges out of the welter of my semiotic firstness, right?

So, if I may be so bold as to venture a tentative suggestion, maybe the semiotics of race go no further than three elements: memory, instatiation-exprience (the relation of experiences to memories?) and the sheer phenomenon of polarization. In my mind, we can discuss the roots of polarization, but ethnographically, we can't swing the cat without hitting it. It's just there.




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