AN345, Fall 2003 TR 12:30-1:50PM

Instructor: Dr. Bilinda Straight                                                            

Moore Hall 118; Tel: 387-0409                                  


Office Hours: T,W,R 2-3 p.m. & by appoint.

Web Page:


Language and Society


I owe my first inkling of the problem of infinity to a large biscuit tin that was a source of vertiginous mystery during my childhood. On one side of this exceptional object was a Japanese scene; I do not recall the children or warriors who configured it, but I do remember that in a corner of the image the same biscuit tin reappeared with the same picture, and in it the same picture again, and so on (at least by implication) infinitely…(Borges 1999 [1939]:160).


The study of our own and other societies is often like a dabble into the infinite, in which everything repeats itself in larger and smaller ways, and in which little things like biscuit tins can be revelations of profound significance. For Borges, the biscuit tin is an ecstatic epiphany. For us, it is a sign. Like any road sign, it tells us much more than what appears to us in its shape, color, and symbols. If we had never seen a road sign, it would be a process of discovery for us to learn that this sign already supposes that we know about roads, four-wheeled vehicles, about speeds that require some sort of condensed method of communication. More than that, we might want to learn that for many, cars are a route to, and symbol of, freedom, that for many as well, they communicate crucial information about who they are. Then we might study the stop sign and ask why red should feel sensible for stopping people, why red does indeed seem to beg us to take notice, while white is rather bland and more appropriate for less crucial communications.


In this course we will be focusing on the nature of what has often been referred to as the linguistic sign, the sign in language. We will not confine ourselves to the sign in language however. We will find signs all around us—in biscuit tins, road signs, clothing, architecture, as well as in texts, films, and artificial intelligence. We will ask what those signs tell us about the communities in which we find them, and more generally, what the relationship is between signs and the world. Our method for asking and suggesting some answers to these questions will be hands-on, with a lab component in most classes. Through lab exercises and discussions we will do a variety of things. We will for example, search for visual and aural patterns in languages totally unfamiliar to us and experimentally compare those to what we can find out about the societies that use those languages. We will pose questions of specific signs, asking for example, what political motivations certain texts or images contain. Borges tells us of a German children’s book published in 1936 which, among other lessons, tells children “Here’s the Jew, recognizable to all, the biggest scoundrel in the whole kingdom” (quoted in Borges 1999 [1937]: 199). We might suggest with hindsight that a book like this one inculcated a genocidal attitude during the formative moments of childhood. This is a crucial aspect of this book as sign, yet there are other aspects about age, gender, and a particular moral order as it existed in this time and place that we might also discern. Without the benefit of hindsight, we might ask what contemporary North American children’s books tell us politically, culturally, and socially. In short, in this course we will devote ourselves to the interpretation of signs in as many and unexpected places as we can, examining each for the infinite messages—and other signs—it contains.

Required Course Readings


Borges, Jorge Luis. 1999. Selected Non-Fictions. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. New York, NY: Viking, Penguin.


Danesi, Marcel and Paul Perron. 1999. Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.


Eco, Umberto. 1995. The Search for the Perfect Language. Translated by James Fentress. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.


Ahearn, Laura M. 2001. Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.


Rosaldo, Michelle Z. 1980. Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.



Grading (See Grading Key for complete instructions)


            Attendance                  25%                 Lab Work                                20%

            Reading Proofs            25%                 Final Project                            30%


Attendance (25% of grade)

In a class of this kind and size, your presence and participation are essential to the quality of the experience for others as well as yourself. Your attendance grade will be based on the number of days you are absent, calculated as points missed on a one-hundred percent scale. For example, if you attended 23 of 26 classes you would have 88 ½% for your attendance grade, which would be 22 out of 25 possible points for this portion of your grade. You are allowed one excused absence only, with fully documented, appropriate excuse. Additional excused absences will be fully at my discretion (conference attendances are encouraged but only one can be used for an excused absence; additional conferences, family trips, alternative speakers or venues are your choice and will be tolerated but not excused).


Reading Proofs (25% of grade)

There will be no formal examinations in this class. However, I do expect you to come prepared to each class, having carefully read the assigned readings. You will be asked at each class to spend five minutes (and no more) writing an answer to a question (or two) I will pose. Your ability to answer these questions will of course depend on your having done the reading. You will get a 0 for the day if it is clear that you haven’t read. You will get a 1 for the day if you have, and a high pass (1.2) if your answer reflects a great deal of thoughtfulness. Your reading proofs grade will be calculated like your attendance grade, but in this case your high passes will allow you to get more than 25% of the spread to boost your overall grade.


Lab Work (20% of grade)

We will do a variety of experiments and exercises in class, with some labs including an outside-of-class component. If the nature of the lab makes it possible to make it up outside of class time, this will be permitted only if the absence was excused.


Final Essay (30% of grade)

Almost anything goes for this. You may choose to do a research essay on a topic directly relating to the course content, not to exceed 10 double-spaced pages. You may also create a video if it includes interpretative analysis within it or is accompanied by a brief essay that does. You may create a web page on a topic directly relating to the course’s content. I will entertain other possibilities, including creative non-fiction, if they require research to produce. If you have difficulty in coming up with a topic, please feel free to see me.


Citation method for research essays: Include a bibliography for anything you cite. When you cite, quote, or paraphrase in text, put an in-text citation in parentheses (author’s last name, date, page number if a direct quote).  It looks like this: (Straight 1997) for citation or paraphrase, (Straight 1997: 37) for direct quote. You should always cite when you are drawing upon someone’s research or ideas. If you conduct any of your own interviews, you should create pseudonyms for your respondents and cite quotations from those interviews like this (Miller interview, 2002).


Academic Integrity: You are responsible for making yourself aware of and understanding the

policies and procedures in the Undergraduate Catalog (pp. 268-269)/Graduate Catalog (pp. 26-27) that pertain to academic integrity. These policies include cheating, fabrication, falsification

and forgery, multiple submission, plagiarism, complicity and computer misuse. If there is reason to believe you have been involved in academic dishonesty, you will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. You will be given the opportunity to review the charge(s). If you believe

you are not responsible, you will have the opportunity for a hearing. You should consult with me if you are uncertain about an issue of academic honesty prior to the submission of an assignment or test.

Bilinda Straight’s

Grading Key


All letter grades are converted into a quantitative grade and quantitative grades into a qualitative grade for the semester (see key below). All quantitative semester grades are multiplied by the percentage of the spread they represent. Thus, if attendance is worth 20% of the grade, it would be calculated as follows: If you were absent 3 times out of 30 total class days, you would be counted as absent 3 times. Three out of 30 is 10 percent absence, or 90% presence. So you have a 90 on attendance, multiplied by 20% of the spread, gives you 18. All grades thus calculated are added together to equal the total percentage out of one hundred.  Your semester grade is then calculated as per the key below. Using this key and instructions, you can keep track of your own grade as the semester progresses, but always feel free to ask me for assistance in calculating it.


                                    Grade Scale for Final Grades


97-100                 A+


94-96                   A


87-93                   BA


84-86                   B


77-83                   CB


74-76                   C


67-73                   DC


60-66                   D


below 60              E


Course schedule


Remember, as John Lennon said, life is what happens while you're making other plans.


As Buddha said, change is inherent in the universe.


Like everything, this schedule is subject to change. Indeed, the only contract for readings I will make here is that you will indeed read what follows. I reserve the right to add readings as we go.


PART ONE: Orientations


Week One: 8/28 Overview of course. Introductory Lab.


Week Two: 9/2 and 9/4

Read by Tuesday: Analyzing Cultures, Chaper One (pp. 1-38). Hominid Tools Lab. Questions: Is there a relationship between human physiology and the human tendency to look for and create patterns? Is there a relationship between human physiology, the tendency toward pattern creation, and the search for meaning?


Week Three: 9/9 and 9/11

Read by Tuesday: Analyzing Cultures, Chapters Two and Three (pp. 39-101). Tuesday: Saussure and Peirce. Pennies and Books Lab: Demonstrating Saussure’s and Peirce’s sign models with common household objects. How can pennies and books illustrate these signs? How can a penny illustrate Saussure’s sign model? How can it illustrate Peirce’s? How many pennies does it take to represent you reading a book, in a chair, in a room, at this precise temporal, historical, political, and cultural moment?


Read by Thursday: Borges, “The Postulation of Reality” (pp. 59-64). Consider from Analyzing Cultures issues relating to the Turing Machine and Artificial Intelligence. What do these issues have to do with signs? What do they have to do with us? Considering Borges, what does forgetting have to do with signs, meaning, and being human? Lab: Design a Machine With a Soul: Take a potato, or Mr. Potato Head, add a computer, add…Okay, not that exactly but you’ll get the idea.


Week Four: 9/16 and 9/18

Tuesday: Saussure and Peirce, again, with feeling. More discussion of Analyzing Cultures, Chapter Three. Lab: Identifying Icon, Index, Symbol and Orders of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.


Read by Thursday: Eco, pp. 7-52; Borges, “A History of Angels” (pp. 16-19) & “An Investigation of the Word” (pp. 32-39). Content and Expression; Form, Substance, and Continuum; relation between sign and world. What is the search for the perfect language? What does the search assume? What does this have to do with angels?


Week Five: 9/23 and 9/25

Read by Tuesday: Eco pp. 209-353. Yup, that’s 150 pages. On Tuesday we will revisit that Turing machine and Artificial Intelligence. On Thursday, we will consider the problem of translation through discussion and a lab using unfamiliar languages.


Week Six: 9/30 and 10/2

Read by Tuesday: Analyzing Cultures, Chapter Four (pp. 104-135). Lab: Interpreting the body clothed, the body nude, the body moving, the body in film, the body in text (we will not do all of these, but some of you will do one or two, some of you will do others).


Read by Thursday: Rosaldo, Chapters 1 & 2 (pp. 1-60). What is Rosaldo trying to accomplish? What is her understanding of translation, and of signs? What Ilongot words “correspond” to knowledge and passion in her book? How do they “correspond”?


Week Seven: 10/7 and 10/9

Read by Tuesday: Rosaldo, Chapters 3 & 4 (pp. 61-136). We will consider gender, age, and other means of organizing societies. How do Ilongot words help us to understand these things?


Thursday: Lab: We will do a lab in two parts. Part One will use examples of English words and grammar, and examples from Samburu and Kiswahili words and grammar to illustrate age and gender in language. Part Two will draw upon selections from Borges to illustrate the concept of inter-textuality and its relation to the richness of word- and text-signs for cultural interpretation.


Week Eight: 10/14 and 10/16

Read by Tuesday: Analyzing Cultures, Chapter Six (pp. 161-184) and Rosaldo, Chapter 5 (pp. 137-176). We will examine Rosaldo anew from the perspective of metaphor. We will expand the definition of metaphor in relation to experience generally, comparison and pattern creation, and translation. We will also consider translation broadly in relation to experience.


Read by Thursday: Rosaldo, Chapters 6-7 (pp. 177-234). We will begin thinking about the problems of cultural relativism and cultural critique. How do you feel about the practice of headhunting and Rosaldo’s portrayal of it? Does respect for other ways of being mean that we cannot repudiate practices like headhunting? What are the dangers of drawing (or not drawing) a moral line? Is it unethical to do so? What are the sub-texts of Rosaldo’s book? Does she draw a line? What is she saying with her words and her silences?


Week Nine: 10/21 and 10/23

Read by Tuesday: Analyzing Cultures, Chapter Eight (pp. 205-228); Analyzing Cultures, Chapter Eleven (pp. 267-287); Eco, “The Nationalistic Hypotheses” (pp. 95-103); & Borges “Notes on Germany and the War” (pp. 199-213). We will continue with cultural critique, and specifically with using a semiotic method for doing cultural critique. Preparation for Lab: Bring in any children’s books you can get a hold of. In case of miracles of time, bring in a television ad you’ve recorded with that vcr you probably own.


Read by Thursday: Borges “Film Reviews and Criticism” (pp. 257-263). Preparation for lab: Rent, pre-view at home, and bring in one of these films: Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” “Citizen Kane,” “Jekyll and Hyde” (the 1941 version), “Now Voyager” (with Bette Davis), or “Nightmare.” Select a scene and have the video queued up to it—be ready to talk about what is noteworthy. We are going to try to see what Borges saw in some of these films, and to see what he did not tell us. Pay attention to gestures, clothing, tone of voice, the use of light, space, and so on. Think about race, gender, class, nationalism. Try to discover what the film-maker took for granted—what was forgotten and thus went without saying or comment as well as what they might have been trying to say.


Week Ten: 10/28 and 10/30

Read by Tuesday: Analyzing Cultures, Chapter Seven (pp. 185-204). Preparation for lab: Bring in a bag of common objects like empty towel or toilet paper rolls, pencils, cotton balls, Q-tips, pipe cleaners, paper (printed on is fine), aluminum cans, film canisters, little packaging boxes (like for medicine and hygiene supplies, pasta, etc.), and so on. We are going to make three-dimensional maps, among other things.


Read by Thursday: Ahearn, Chapters 1 &2 (pp. 3-44). We will spend our time considering what Ahearn seems to be doing with her book, including noting the issues about (1) translation and (2) her own identity that she brings up.


Week Eleven: 11/4 and 11/6

Read by Tuesday, Ahearn, Chapter 3 (pp. 45-64). Be prepared to discuss the issues she raises on gender, agency, social change, and so on. We will spend the first part of class discussing issues including gender, literacy, and social change. We will spend the second part of class discussing agency and love. How do we translate love? Can we relate this back to Rosaldo’s book and its treatment of emotions? Regarding agency, is agency a useful category to apply to the study of all societies? How can or should it be used? What are the potential problems? In what ways do you agree or disagree with Ahearn’s discussion of agency?


Read by Thursday, Ahearn, Chapters 4 & 5 (pp. 67-119). Film, Dadi’s Family, and Discussion.


Week Twelve: 11/11 and 11/13

Read by Tuesday, Ahearn, Chapter 6 (pp. 119-145). We will discuss sexuality and marriage as covered in chapters 4-6, with a lab on kinship.


Read by Thursday, Ahearn, Chapters 7 & 8 (pp. 149-211). Preparation for lab: Bring in at least one source (textual, visual, or an object) that you could use to analyze the sources of discourse in North American love letters.


Week Thirteen: 11/18

Read by Tuesday, Ahearn, Chaptes 9 & 10 (pp. 212-260). We will discuss the love letters themselves, what we do and don’t appreciate about this book, and what more we might (or might not) see in these letters than what Ahearn presents. We will also re-visit the process of doing fieldwork and writing that Ahearn raised earlier in the book.


Thursday, 11/20: NO CLASS (Anthro Mtgs)


Week Fourteen: 11/25

Ready by Tuesday, Analyzing Cultures, Chapter 12 (pp. 290-311). Lab: We will meet in an agreed-upon place to soak up the semiotic atmosphere.


Thursday, 11/27: NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)


Week Fifteen: 12/2 and 12/4

Tuesday: Smell, Taste, and Touch Lab. Preparation for lab: Bring in something for the class to taste, sniff, or touch. Do not bring in anything too ghastly for tasting! Do try to disguise it—something to touch concealed in a paper bag, something to taste or smell that we cannot, or are not likely to, identify by sight. We will engage in semiotic analyses of our reactions, our choices of what to bring in, of our own engagement in the exercise. We will “control” for gender and other variables we decide upon before beginning.


Thursday: Review, reflect, evaluate, celebrate.