Shaking grounds, unearthing palimpsests: Semiotic anthropology of disaster

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This article will engage with the current disasters in Japan from the perspective of semiotic anthropology. Disaster seems to produce two moments of the sign: signa naturalia and signa data. The translation of the sign mirrors the architectonic of the signified of disaster, which is mediated by a token-level instantiation of signifiers that initially appears either absent or in excess. The conceptualization of disaster as a zero sign, that is, unlimited possibility, allows an investigation of "a struggle of interpretants" in stipulating the interpretative grounds of the signified amid regenerative processes of social regularity. It is this very exact moment of translation that the sustained continuity reveals its culture-specific "deep social grammar." Disaster or "shaking grounds" has the presenting effect of cultural palimpsests. These unearthed palimpsests enable a heightened metasemiotic awareness of institutional and ideological regimentations, on the one hand, and token-level recontexualizations, assimilations, and hybridizations of the depository of signs in society in the post-disaster contexts, on the other. The article concludes with an attempt to synthesize Peircean semeiotics and Saussurean semiology by assessing the two distinct modes of semiosis, culture and trauma, upon a sudden threat of the experience of discontinuity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)263-274
Number of pages12
Issue number192
StatePublished - Oct 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


  • Cultural palimpsests
  • Disaster
  • Japan
  • Memory
  • Semiotic anthropology
  • Trauma


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