Center for the Study of Communication and Society


Signification, Circulation, Emanations

April 26–27, 2024 | Franke Institute for the Humanities (1100 E. 57th Street), The University of Chicago


Starting in 1990s and blossoming in a series of publications in the 2000s and 2010s, the work of Michael Silverstein began to rethink the semiotics of institutionality, with major theoretical contributions concerning questions of circulation (Silverstein 2005, 2010), commodification (2003a, 2006, 2016), and the nature of political communities (1997, 2003b, 2010, 2013). Drawing on the semiotic approach to culture outlined in the 1996 volume, Natural Histories of Discourse (Silverstein and Urban 1996) and related publications (Silverstein 1998, 2004, 2022), this body of scholarship attempted to understand how events of semiotic activity reach beyond and are shaped by texts and/in contexts far and wide, and, further, the ways in which they participate in tiered organizations of semiosis. Evolving from focus on “micro” and “macro” orders of discourse (2003a) into a theorization of scaling (2016) as a semiotic process that organizes vast varieties of social life, this later phase of Silverstein’s work provides a summation and open horizon on a lifetime of scholarship through the semiotic trichotomy: signification, circulation, and emanation (2013, 2021, 2022).

If signification looks back towards Silverstein’s structuralist scholarship (on language structure and pragmatics) as transformed through the notion of entextualization (Silverstein and Urban 1996), and circulation to the processes of entextualization as transformed through orders of indexicality (2003a) and interdiscursivity (2005), emanation (2013, 2021, 2022) pointed to the central role of ritual, not simply as a model of performativity and pragmatics (the Goffmanian problem of the “interaction order” as a sui generis micro order of activity) but as a central node in the organization of institutional life: namely, how the multiply laminated and scalar organization of discourse in its propulsive “movement” across social timespace emanates from privileged sites of semiotic (ritual) activity, thereby englobing contexts and processes of circulation and significa-tion.

In this third of three conferences, we take off, and take cues, from the institutionality and institutionalization of semiosis sketched out in this later phase of Silverstein’s scholarship. This body of work, while unfinished (in historic fact and in intellectual principle), remains as an invitation to the academic publics to which Silverstein wrote, manifesting as the ripples traveling outwards from a lifetime of semiotic theorization, cresting onto the open horizon of collective future inquiries. If, then, Silverstein’s body of work serves as a site of emanation of scholarly ideas, we aim to “ride the wave” while looking forward to hitherto untraveled seas and shores of intellectual thought.

References Cited
Silverstein, Michael. 1997. Encountering language and languages of encounter in North American ethnohistory. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 6:126–44.
––––––. 1998. The improvisational performance of culture in realtime discursive practice. In R. K. Sawyer, ed., Creativity in Performance, 265–312. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corp.
––––––. 2003a. Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23(3–4):193–229
––––––. 2003b. The whens and wheres – as well as hows – of ethnolinguistic recognition. Public Culture 15(3):531–57.
––––––. 2004. “Cultural” concepts and the language-culture nexus. Current Anthropology 45(5):621–52.
––––––. 2006. Old wine, new ethnographic lexicography. Annual Review of Anthropology 35:481–96.
––––––. 2010. Society, Polity, and Language Community: An Enlightenment Trinity in Anthropological Perspective” Journal of Language and Politics 9(3):339–63.
––––––. 2013. Discourse and the no-thing-ness of culture. Signs and Society 1(2):327–66.
––––––. 2016. Semiotic Vinification and the Scaling of Taste. In Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life, ed. E. Summerson Carr & Michael Lempert, pp. 185–212. Berkeley: University of California Press.
––––––. 2021. The dialectics of indexical semiosis: Scaling up and out from the “actual” to the “virtual.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 272:13–45.
––––––. 2022. Language in Culture: Lectures on the Social Semiotics of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverstein, Michael and Greg Urban, eds. 1996. Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.