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).