Robert Yelle, Parmentier, Richard J.: Signs and Society. Further Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. 266 pp. ISBN 978-​0-​253-​02496-​1. Price: $ 35.00 in:

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Anthropos, Volume 115 (2020), Issue 1, ISSN: 0257-9774, ISSN online: 0257-9774,

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Parmentier, Richard J.: Signs and Society. Further Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington: Indi‐ ana University Press, 2016. 266 pp. ISBN 978-0-253- 02496-1. Price: $ 35.00 Parmentier is a distinguished anthropologist who taught for many years at Brandeis University. Trained at the University of Chicago, where he imbibed a distinc‐ tive tradition of linguistic anthropology represented, in‐ ter alia, by Michael Silverstein, Parmentier has made a number of interventions designed to promote a semiotic approach to culture. The title of the work under review deliberately echoes that of his earlier book, “Signs in Society” (1994), and carries further a number of the same themes. The main title also happens to be the same as that of a journal inaugurated by Parmentier and several colleagues in 2013 and published by the Univer‐ sity of Chicago Press. Almost all of the essays collected in this volume were published previously in various venues over the past 20 years. They represent a careful‐ ly curated sampling of the mature reflections of a noted contributor to an important subfield in linguistic and general anthropology. Following a useful definition and genealogy of the field of semiotic anthropology in chapter one, the re‐ mainder of Part I is devoted to an excavation of key conceptual issues in the field of Peircean semiotics as this tradition relates both to other semiotic theories and to anthropology. This section will be accessible mainly to those who already have some knowledge of Charles Sanders Peirce (as well as Ferdinand de Saussure), per‐ haps from perusing some of Parmentier’s earlier writ‐ ings on the subject. Part II broadens from this Peircean foundation to engage with a range of themes ranging from temporality and rapid cultural change to Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism and commodity fetishism (152). These essays are more accessible for the nonsemiotician, and in some cases, such as the very inter‐ esting chapter on “Description and Comparison of Reli‐ gion,” appear to have little directly to do with semiotic theory, while preserving a focus on culture from an an‐ thropological perspective. Part III offers three chapters that apply semiotics to empirical cases: Palauan cere‐ monial money (udoud), the manner in which divine im‐ ages and seals may represent or index the real presence of divinity, and the rhetoric of entextualization and in‐ dexicality in Pindar’s victory odes. The last two chap‐ ters were coauthored with Massimo Leone and Nancy Felson, respectively. Parmentier frequently turns to his research field, the Micronesian island of Palau (or Be‐ lau), to illustrate a point. The chapter on Palauan cere‐ monial money is perhaps the most traditional ethno‐ graphic chapter in the book. The writing is conceptually sophisticated, lucid, and replete with references to the relevant scholarship, as well as to a much wider corpus that bears on the social sciences and humanities, including philosophy, litera‐ ture, and classics. Collectively, these chapters perform a dazzling display of the ambition and reach of a semiotic approach to culture. There is something here for scholars in many disciplines, although as noted previ‐ ously some essays, particularly those in Part I, may prove challenging for those without a prior knowledge of Peirce. The book is neither an introductory text nor (in general) a “how-to” manual. A serious work such as this deserves an equally serious reading. One issue raised by the book concerns Parmen‐ tier’s attempt to codify a field of “semiotic anthropolo‐ gy.” Chapter One lays out a quite useful genealogy of semiotic anthropology as having emerged from the two commonly acknowledged sources of semiotics: the struc‐ tural linguistics of the Genevan Ferdinand de Saussure and the pragmatic(ist) philosophy of the American Charles Sanders Peirce, cofounders independently of “semiology” and “semeiotic.” Much of contemporary semiotic theory continues to reflect on this legacy, its promises and tensions. The chapter ends with the emer‐ gence of semiotic anthropology in the tradition of the Chicago school, and indeed with a discussion of Parmen‐ tier’s own work. This seems more understandable once we realize that the chapter was written initially as an en‐ cyclopedia article on “Semiotic Anthropology.” How‐ ever, we might still be forgiven for reading this as a teleo‐ logical account, in which semiotics has now evolved fi‐ nally into its proper form. What is the relation of semiotic anthropology to general semiotics? As Parmentier notes (3), neither Saussure nor Peirce was an anthropologist. Parmentier offers highly informative background on the latter’s philosophical project, which took traditional logic as its point of departure. Contemporary semiotics is an in‐ terdisciplinary field, one that ranges from law, to litera‐ ture, to media studies. Parmentier himself draws on a wide range of sources and disciplines, including classics, in this book. If we take anthropology in the most generous sense, as the study of the human, and in this case of the cultural dimension of anthropos, then the book has much to offer to other disciplines. However, Parmentier cannot avoid emphasizing cer‐ tain schools of semiotic thought over others, and thus making, at least implicitly, a claim for the primacy of his particular approach. Apart from the two founders, there does not (yet) exist any clear consensus in semi‐ otics regarding which school of thought is best, much less as to the proper interpretation of this school. As noteworthy as Parmentier’s focus on Peirce is his rela‐ tive absence of engagement with structural anthropolo‐ gy. Claude Lévi-Strauss is mentioned only in a few places, and then in a fairly formulaic way, mainly to note his focus on social exchange (9, 95, 130, 166). Per‐ haps this is just a quibble. Yuri Lotman does receive several appreciative nods in the book. Parmentier ex‐ plicitly eschews the quest for a single semiotic “meta‐ language” and recommends instead (99 f.) that semiotics should remain an interdisciplinary and flexible method, a kind of interstitial place where representatives of the established disciplines – such as anthropology – may meet and engage in productive exchange. Indeed, the limitations of a Peircean approach are traced with insight and erudition in Part I, where Par‐ 260 Book Reviews Anthropos 115.2020 mentier describes the American philosopher-scientist’s quest for certainty, amounting in some cases to a mathe‐ matical exactitude that excluded ambiguity, poetry, and rhetoric (32). Both Peirce and Saussure strove to emerge from the cul-de-sac of nominalism (42), and to discover general laws of signification that would escape the grav‐ ity of mere empiricism. Such laws constitute an impor‐ tant contribution to a general anthropology. However, they always need to be modified through practical appli‐ cation to empirical data, as Parmentier illustrates. A further tension raised although not entirely re‐ solved by the book concerns the relation of an etic semi‐ otic metatheory to emic or “folk” theories of representa‐ tion. One of the most promising developments in recent years has been the increasing recognition of the role that “semiotic ideologies” play in regimenting communica‐ tion (95, 195). Webb Keane’s work is a sterling exam‐ ple. This suggests a corresponding shift away from uni‐ versality to particularity, away from the search for math‐ ematical precision, such as that expressed by the Peircean trichotomies, to an attention, even affection for the rhetorical dimensions of culture. Parmentier is on board with this newer paradigm, yet at times appears to be a reluctant passenger. For example, in several places he uses semiotics to explain the belief in the immanence of the divine in images (52, 97, 197), or the Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eu‐ charist, in terms that do not appear to this reader to ac‐ knowledge fully the reality of magical thinking as a cul‐ tural and historical phenomenon. Parmentier states that “Anthropologists are justly wary of crude typological generalizations about cultures grounded in some ‘mysti‐ cal participation’ in which the levels of sign and refer‐ ent are blurred because of some evolutionary cognitive deficit” (131). The reference appears to be to such out‐ moded approaches as those of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, James George Frazer, etc. Yet, as scholars from Hans Aarsleff to Brian Vickers have shown, the rejection of an older philosophy of “identity” between sign and ref‐ erent was an important philosophical advance that itself contributed to the birth of modern linguistic and semi‐ otic theory. In the Hindu Tantras we find sincere state‐ ments that the deity is produced from mantras, consists of mantras, etc. In contemporary India the image of a deity is invested with life as well as legal personality upon the performance of the rites of prāṇapratiṣṭhā, which use mantras (as “speech acts”) performatively to install the deity in its image. Such modes of immanen‐ tism, if not “magical thinking,” may be illuminated through the Peircean categories of icon and index. How‐ ever, what is illuminated is not thereby, ex opere opera‐ to, transformed into a science, much less into one con‐ gruent with the Peircean trichotomies. It remains as an example of a perennial human tendency to create per‐ suasive illusions. Part of the power of a cultural semi‐ otics is its ability to negotiate between the scientific de‐ mand for a technical metalanguage and the messier products of real life. These are only a few of the thought-provoking issues raised by Parmentier’s volume, which represents a wel‐ come contribution and deserves to be read widely by anthropologists and semioticians of all persuasions. Robert Yelle ( Reyels, Lili, Paola Ivanov und Kristin Weber-Sinn (Hrsg.): Humboldt Lab Tanzania. Objekte aus den Kolo‐ nialkriegen im Ethnologischen Museum, Berlin – Ein tansanisch-deutscher Dialog. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2018. 397 pp. ISBN 978-3-496-01591-8. Preis: € 59,00 Der zu besprechende Sammelband beruht auf einer 15-monatigen Forschungskooperation von September 2016 bis Dezember 2017 zwischen dem Ethnologischen Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, tansanischen Wissenschaftlern der University of Dar es Salaam und des National Museum and House of Culture, Dar es Sa‐ laam sowie dem tansanischen Antiquities Department des Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism von Tanzania. Fester Bestandteil des Projekts waren darüber hinaus vier Künstler/-innen aus Dar es Salaam unter der künstlerischen Leitung von Sarita Lydia Mamseri, Gründerin der Bookstop Sanaa Visual Art Library in Dar es Salaam. Zehn von elf Beiträgen des Sammelbandes stammen von Mitgliedern des Projektes “Humboldt Lab Tanza‐ nia”. Neben der Projektleiterin und Kuratorin für Ost-, Nordost-, Zentral- und Südafrika am Ethnologischen Museum Berlin, Paola Ivanov, sind es die Mitherausge‐ berinnen Kristin Weber-Sinn vom Ethnologischen Mu‐ seum Berlin und die Historikerin und Projektleiterin in Tansania Lili Reyels. Die Autor/-innen der tansanischen Partnerinstitutionen sind der Archäologe Bertram B. B. Mapunda, der Kunsthistoriker Elias Jengo und der His‐ toriker Oswald Masebo von der University of Dar es Salaam; Philip Chachu M. Maligisu, Kurator am Na‐ tional Museum and House of Culture; Donatius M. Kamamba, ehemaliger Direktor im Antiquities Depart‐ ment des Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism sowie die oben bereits erwähnte Sarita Lydia Mamseri. Der Afrikahistoriker Andreas Eckert von der Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin steuert den einzigen Beitrag bei, der nicht von Projektmitarbeiter/-innen stammt. Das Coverbild des Sammelbandes zeigt eines der im Projekt untersuchten tansanischen Objekte, die während der gewaltsamen kolonialen Eroberung Tansanias durch deutsche Kolonialherren ihren Weg in die Sammlung des Ethnologischen Museums in Berlin fanden. Debat‐ ten und Diskurse um die Aufarbeitung deutscher Kolo‐ nialgeschichte, die jahrzehntelang nur ein Schattenda‐ sein fristeten, manifestieren sich heute vor allem in mu‐ sealen Sammlungsbeständen aus kolonialen Kontexten. Dies betrifft nicht nur ethnografische Sammlungen, son‐ dern auch naturkundliche Objekte. Als 2015 bekannt wurde, dass die Bestände des Ethnologischen Museums in Berlin Dahlem in das künftige Humboldt Forum ver‐ lagert werden sollten, erfuhren diese Diskussionen eine Book Reviews 261 Anthropos 115.2020

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Anthropos is the international journal of anthropology and linguistics, founded in 1906 by Wilhelm Schmidt, missonary and member of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). Its main purpose is the study of human societies in their cultural dimension. In honor of Wilhelm Schmidt‘s legacy, the cultivation of anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, and religious studies remain an essential component oft he Anthropos Institute – the organizational carrier of the journal.


Anthropos - internationale Zeitschrift für Völkerkunde wird vom Anthropos Institut St. Augustin seit 1906 zweimal jährlich herausgegeben. Ursprünglich als Sprachrohr für katholische Missionarsarbeit geplant, gilt sie heute als wichtige Fachzeitschrift der allgemeinen Ethnologie. Sie behandelt sowohl kulturelle als auch sprachliche Themen in mehreren Sprachen, mit Schwerpunkt auf den Völkern des gesamtamerikanischen und afrikanischen Kontinents.