Someone in one of the my email lists was asking about the history of semiotics in anthropology, and that made me realise that I didn’t know very much about the subject, so I spent some time googling it. I got particularly interested in Milton Singer, who is interesting to me because he was hugely influential at Chicago, but afaik is basically forgotten today in my field.
A quick google seemed to confirm much of what I already suspected about semiotics: After Worlds War II many people were interested in abstraction and communication — concepts like ‘cybernetics’ and ‘information’ were in the air. As the more humanistically-inclined dug for sources they saw Saussure and Peirce as dual sources for what we now call ‘semiotics’.
In the US Thomas Sebeok was the academic entrepreneur who worked to create semiotics as a new and embracing discipline. In fact, one obituary called him the “pioneer, pathfinder, mentor, midwife, pied piper, kind Midas, gold standard, magician, troubadour, trickster,” and “friend” of semiotics. A more staid LA Time Obituary has further details and no pay wall. Linguistics as a discipline was clearly key here.
According to a short history the first major conference on semiotics was in 1966, around the same time the journal Semiotica was founded. Sebeok was involved in this and a ton of other series, often published by De Gruyter Mouton. It was a highly international affair (as many of those things were in those well-funded days) with American (and Canadian) institutional supports in people like Sebeok, as well as many European anchors. Greimas’s name appears in this literature frequently, for instance. There was also a strong Eastern European influence as well.
To me, ‘semiotics’ in anthropology means ‘Chicago anthropology, especially the work of Michael Silverstein’. Silverstein however, is just part of a larger movement. Today, this approach is well-established in other powerful departments — there is for instance Webb Keane at Michigan and Asif Agha and Benjamin Lee at Penn, Paul Kockelman at Yale, Nicholas Harkness at Harvard, and many others. So by now this tendency in anthropology has the potential to be institutionalised in most of the major departments of anthropology in North America, and seems to me to be a North American phenomenon — I can’t think of many Oxbridge types who think of themselves as doing ‘semiotics’ in this sense. Silverstein was hired by Chicago in 1971. His ground-breaking “shifters” paper was published in 1974.
But Silverstein was not the only person to discuss semiotics at Chicago. Milton Singer (useful obit here) did a philosophy degree at Chicago with Carnap in 1940 and ended up turning into a South Asianist and major force behind Chicago’s Centre for South Asian Studies, often working with Robert Redfield on projects driven by large external grants (here’s another Chicago-based obit). I am guessing war service sent him in that direction? I am sure if I read some of the sources I googled it would all be clear to me.
At any rate, in the late 1970s Singer returned to an interest in earlier questions of meaning, beginning (afaik) with the paper “For a semiotic anthropology” in Sebeok’s edited volume Sight, Sound, and Sense. Other way marks here are his 1984 Man’s Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology and 1991’s Semiotics of Cities, Selves and Cultures. While some authors have revisited this work on the whole I at least haven’t heard much about it. I do wonder about his relationship with Silverstein — the two authors were at different ends of their careers.
As a grad student in the 1990s I was assigned works such as Semiotic Mediation (1985) and Signs in Society (1994) (and the earlier papers in it) as examples of the tradition. The 2013 creation of the journal Signs in Society seems important to me as a sign of the continued vitality of this tendency. When Paul Manning joined the editorial board of Language and Communication in 2004 I feel like I started seeing several semiotic-style special issues appearing there.
There is more to say about all this, but I wrote this mostly to dump all my open browser tabs into my (outboard) brain, so I’ll stop here for now and let this cursory sketch stay cursory.
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