Call for Papers

Issue 6: Vegetal Ontologies: A Stroll Through the World of Plants and People

A Call for Papers for a special issue of Semiotic Review on Phytosemiotics

With the recent animal and multispecies turns in critical theory and philosophy, everything from cats and dogs to microbes and mycorrhizal fungi have become vital allies against anthropocentrism, yet plants have been largely ignored. This is a call for papers that consider the importance of plants as contributing thinkers and actors within multispecies interactions, landscapes, and worlds. We begin with the path breaking insight of Martin Krampen (1928-2015): that the study of plant life cannot be reduced simply to mechanical descriptions of efficient cause, but must account for phytosemiotics, or sign use and interpretation by plants. Like other life forms, plants are autonomous subjects with their own, meaning- laden life worlds, from which those of human and nonhuman animals emerge. The role of plant cultivation in human civilization, from the rise of the state to the green revolution, is well known. But recent botanical research shows that plants also respond to and communicate about their surroundings, not only by exchanging chemical signals through the air, but also by sharing and stealing nutrients via symbiotic networks underground. In climate change policy and practice, furthermore, plants are leading indicators of, and countermeasures deployed against, the dawning Anthropocene.

Plants lack nervous systems that mediate between life worlds and experience, which means that they are characterized by a degree of immersion in their habitats that other creatures depend upon, and may come to dread or desire for ourselves.1

The activities of “individual” plants give rise to multi-species collectives, including forests, swamps and jungles, of which animal subjects are living thoughts.2 For Krampen, the fact that all animal bodies and behaviors must establish correspondence with the “vegetative rules of endosemiotics” (1981: 208), places an ethical demand on us to know and care for plants lest we asphyxiate ourselves and destroy the planet we share with them.

We seek contributions from various disciplinary perspectives that will consider:

  • How we know plants as organisms and subjects.
  • How we care for them—as aesthetic objects, as sustenance, as biocapital—as well as the lives they lead for themselves, indifferent to us. 
  • For whom plant thinking matters, or for whom should it matter, and why? 
  • What stands in the way of plants thinking their own thoughts, of our thinking their thoughts, of their ability to think ours? 
  • How could this be overcome so that we might become better for and with plants?

Editor Kane X. Faucher and guest editor Joshua O. Reno invite essays, articles, and book review essays for this special issue on phytosemiotics. We plan to review the first set of papers in February 2016, and the issue will remain open to new essays and interventions, with no final deadline as we will continue publishing new contributions in an ongoing dialog for at least a year.

1 Marder, Michael. 2013. Plant Thinking. Columbia University Press, Press, p. 12.
2 Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think. University of California Press.

Issue 1: Parasites

This issue of Semiotic Review looks to multiple sites of parasitic action, considered here both as the study of the parasitic as well as a reflections on parasitic encounters, methods and theories.

For example, the recent turn to animal studies has highlighted the interdependence of humans and nonhumans, from dogs to mushrooms, bees to yeast, cheese cultures to intestinal bacteria. But it has also revealed the relationship of humans to their nonhuman world to be one of oscillating internalizations and externalizations. In both cases, the relations of the parasite to its host unsettles our ontological assumptions about whose world is inhabited by whom, of who is the parasite of whom. Focusing upon the parasite helps us to move beyond the anthropocentrism often inherent in our theoretical conceptions of the world: parasitism is vital to life across distinctions of domain – animal, plant, bacteria, alien, machine, and onward.

The figure of the parasite provokes ruminations on the external that turn out to be internal after all, or that, at any rate, call into question the identity or the ontology of the host. So: let us ask after the parasite that inserts material into the host, that colonizes the host, that transforms the host, and think thereby about scholarship as a parasitic practice that makes and remakes its worlds through its imbrications in the very capacities of life. This issue of Semiotic Review is unified in its interests in a process, not an object. Parasitism over the parasite.
The editors of Semiotic Review, and the Guest-Editor Matthew Wolf-Meyer, call for submissions that explore any of these themes. Like all thematic issues, this issue will remain open to new essays and interventions, and there is thus no deadline for submission.

Issue 2: Monsters

This issue of Semiotic Review explores the intersections of the monstrous/grotesque and the semiotic.

In a manner similar to the fetish, the monster, a figure of radical alterity or difference, can be viewed as a semiotic figure which collects and foregrounds a series of sign relations at the boundaries of semiosis.  The Latin etymology of the term which connects the term to indexicality (monstrare ‘to point’) already underlines the semioticity of the monster.  Monstrosity and the grotesque occupies an aporia in historical, cultural, and semiotic contexts, and the monster therefore serves as a figure of the variousness and heterogeneity of semiosis:  As a sign of portent or omen in the ancient world, as an impossible chimerical sign vehicle standing at the limits of licit representation, for the ineffability of God or the impossibility of the Idol, in the form of ‘monstrous races’, forming a set of inversions of the normal that define the exotic lands of the East as spaces of radical alterity, as a wondrous sign of the absolutely singular, novel or exotic exhibited in curiosities from far-flung voyages and on woodcut images on pages of early newspapers, as a sign of a playful animate Nature which creates preternatural exceptions to its own orderly categories in the Early Modern period, to the scientific and epistemic practices that sought to rationalize monstrosity in its myriad forms into clinical schema in the modern period, to the playful proliferation of monsters in contemporary media mixes. We invite scholarly contributions that make monstrosity and the grotesque the central pivot of sign relations, including papers that explore the semiotic aspect of monsters and monstrosity and other comparable forms of radical alterity, to papers which explore the category of monstrosity and comparable forms of radical alterity as ethnosemiotic categories: is there a universal category of the monster or does it denote a changing semiotic category of specific cultures?  
The editors of Semiotic Review call for submissions that explore any of these themes or similar ones.  Like all thematic issues, this issue will remain open to new essays and interventions, and there is thus no deadline for submission.

Issue 4: Im/materialities

Over the past decade, scholarly interest in the material characteristics and qualities of human worlds has developed apace. Under the heading of ‘materiality’ scholars have emphasized the effects of the material world on meaning, and the dynamic relationships that exist between people and things. This focus on materiality has been positioned by many writers as a move that goes beyond visions of the material world as a passive constraint on meaning. Rather, materiality has been held out as a means to undercut dualistic divisions into subjects and objects, culture and nature, people and things. It is said to do this through drawing attention to the relationships between humans and nonhumans, and to their mutually entangled and constitutive nature. Related to this is an emphasis on “material agency” and a questioning of the status of objects as non-human actors (here drawing largely on the work of Bruno Latour and Alfred Gell). Most recently this impetus has been associated with a broader questioning of accepted ontological frameworks and a search for alternate ontologies, again often positioned as move that pushes back against questions of representation.

Here we’d like to question this recurrent rejection of semiosis as a legitimate subject of inquiry, arguing that the very emphasis on materiality (or ontology in its most recent framing) reveals its limitations as a way to work through or undercut dualist divisions. It amounts to little more than a re-centering of a dualist perspective, which slips between a focus on non-humans and a focus on relations between humans and non-humans. This becomes particularly apparent in the way in which questions of representation, subjectivity and semiosis are often ignored or devalued. Instead, indexical relations are privileged as somehow “beyond” or aside from meaning. The papers in this thematic issue aim to reframe this debate, refusing an opposition between materiality and meaning; not only do we advocate expanding the terrain of semiosis to include the material, but we also search for ways to explore and tease out different im/material semiotic modes. This then is about finding ways to maintain the material and the immaterial within the same analytical frame. We suggest that a Peircean semiotic approach is particularly fruitful for this endeavor, given that it partitions the world in ways that cannot be reduced to traditional binary relations. In this issue we explore different dimensions of Peirce’s semiotic, as a route for thinking through questions of materiality, focusing in particular on the material in terms of semiotic process rather than as static sign vehicle.

Some questions to consider are:

  • What does a Peircean approach offer for a reframing and reconfiguring of subject/object, agent/structure, and material/immaterial dualisms?
  • How might the self-organization encompassed in Peirce’s concept of “habit” provide a more productive way to think about material agency?
  • How are human worlds created and understood by being brought into semiotically mediated relationships with objects and others?

The Editors of Semiotic Review, along with guest editors, Alexander Bauer and Zoe Crossland, invite essays, articles, and book review essays for this special issue on the semiotics of im/materiality. The issue will remain open to new essays and interventions, with no final deadline as we will continue publishing new contributions in an ongoing dialog for at least a year.

Issue 5: Semiotics of food-and-language

There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” (M.F.K Fisher)

This special issue of the Semiotic Review will look at food as a signifying medium through which humans negotiate their material and spiritual existence. We seek to complicate the well-established tradition of using language as a semiotic analog of food—from Levi-Strauss and Douglas to beyond—by calling for works that look at how food and language are semiotically interconnected in new ways. While such interconnections may appear to develop naturally out of the shared orality of food and language or their spatial-temporal contiguity, it is clear that these interpolations take various forms across diverse social and cultural contexts. Numerous studies suggest the fruitfulness of considering food and language as embedded within the same semiotic frame: research on language in use often incidentally includes data about the production, distribution, preparation, representation, and consumption of food, while many studies of food depend on linguistic data such as, for instance, words for food, utterances organizing its production, genres surrounding its preparation, and pragmatic routines for accessing and sharing it. However, the intrinsic simultaneities of food and language have rarely been explicitly theorized nor their interdependencies made into specific objects of analysis.

For this issue, we invite papers that address this lacuna by examining: 1) discourse about food (from discussions of how it is procured to how it tastes), 2) discourse around food (how social interactions frame and elaborate acts of hunting, marketing, cooking, eating, etc.), 3) discourse through food as a semiotic resource (the communication of emotional, social, and cultural meanings via discursive or other semiotic systems involving food itself as a semiotic medium), and/or 4) discourse as food (the representation of talk as a necessary form of human nourishment). Papers need not take a traditionally linguistic approach (i.e., no need to analyze phonemes, morphemes, transcribed turns at talk, etc.), but should explore the semiotics of food from any new vantage point that considers food and language as mutually constitutive semiotic media, interrelated in sometimes coherent and sometimes contradictory ways.

Semiotic Review's editor, Paul Manning, along with guest editors, Jillian Cavanaugh and Kathleen Riley, invite essays, articles, and book review essays for this special issue on the semiotics of food-and-language. There is no final deadline as we will continue publishing new contributions in an ongoing dialog for at least a year.