The Complexity of Social-Cultural Emergence: Biosemiotics, Semiotics and Translation Studies

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference


Presented a paper as part of a panel on 'Translation theories across disciplines'. Paper entitled, 'The Shape and Force of Meaning: Translation the Mississippi'.


Babette Tischleder (2019) juxtaposes two ‘translations’ of the Mississippi: the first by Bruno Latour (reading Mark Twain) and the second by William Faulkner, as read by Tischleder. Both respond to the shape and force of the river, but differ starkly in their use of anthropomorphism to express non-human agency. This paper will engage these two readings in order to consider the operation of material constraints in translational processes as a feature of emergent ecosystems, paying particular attention to the conundrum of anthropocentrism in translation theory.

Material constraints as a prerequisite for meaning is a central idea for both Terrence Deacon (2011) and Karen Barad (2007). However, their accounts of how meaning emerges from matter differ with respect to the implications for semiotics. At issue is the representational nature of meaning, which for Deacon is central to the semiotic processes by which living organisms continue to survive, but which for Barad is undermined by the ontological implications of quantum physics. Whereas for Deacon material constraints make possible the teleodynamic processes which give rise to a semiotics conceived in Peircean terms, for Barad meaning and matter constrain each other through ‘material discursivity’ by which matter is performed by the intra-action of phenomenon. This conception undermines the representational assumptions of Peircean semiotics. In translation studies, Deacon’s approach has been taken up by Kobus Marais (2019), but Barad’s remains under-explored.

These differing approaches to semiotics facilitate different accounts of the relative agencies that shape various socio-cultural realities. These differences are both highlighted and problematised by the contrasting translations of the Mississippi. By reading Latour and Faulkner with both Deacon and Barad, this paper will explore some of the difficulties involved in attempts to bypass anthropocentrism in translation (with particular reference to Marais) and suggest possible alternatives.
Period26 Aug 202128 Aug 2021
Event typeConference
LocationLeuven, Belgium
Degree of RecognitionInternational