Guest editors: Alexander Bauer and Zoë Crossland

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.

Published: 2016-01-25