Keynote and Plenary Speakers


2015 SSA LOGO—Thursday, October 1, 2015—

Welcome Address: Farouk Y. Seif 

“What’s Evolutionary Love Got to Do with Our Annual Meeting?”                       

My welcoming address draws attention to the connections between this year’s theme, “Evolutionary Love,” and the celebration of a milestone in our history: the 40th annual meeting of Semiotic Society of America. Evolution is based on the law of love, and by liberating Eros from mere eroticism, we not only can reinterpret the relation between erotica and semiotica (or semiotics), but also reveal the primordial meaning of love as divine insemination for creation. Integrating Peirce’s “agapasm” into a theory of evolution, with Eros as the “generator-of-desire,” we can see how our humanity and humility in turn exemplify Peircean “synechism.” This remarkable principle of continuity encourages us to engage in infinite reciprocity, whereby love manifests itself in the desire to create a microcosmic whole and to seek an expansion into a macrocosmic whole. Love is thus the raison d’être of semiotics.

Farouk Y. Seif (Ph.D. University of Washington, 1990) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Change at Antioch University Seattle, where he teaches design for initiating and leading social/cultural change. He is a registered architect, an artist, a Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, and the Executive Director of the Semiotic Society of America. He has taught and published his work internationally and has contributed to semiotic congresses since 1999. Prior to becoming an American citizen, Farouk was born and raised in Egypt with a Coptic background. He lives with his wife and their four-legged daughter on Orcas Island, Washington.

Keynote Address: Michael Raposa

“On the Very Idea of a Virtual Community: Peirce and Royce Revisited”

Early in the 20th century, Charles Peirce and Josiah Royce both wrote prescriptively about the ideal of an unlimited community of interpretation. Now in the 21st century Internet Age, the emergence of virtual communities has greatly extended the power and range of what the word “community” can mean, in ways that Peirce and Royce would surely encourage us to assess. This lecture engages such a task. Is the increasingly complex web of semiotic relations made possible by computer technologies the realization of a Peircean/Roycean dream, or is it a nightmare? The rapidly expanding opportunity for conversation in virtual space must be balanced against the recognition that, in such mediated exchanges, the nature and quality of one’s attention to others is inevitably transformed. Since love always requires the paying of proper attention, it is worth considering whether technological developments enable or preclude the realization of what Royce labeled the “Beloved Community.”

Raposa.H R. photo 3Michael L. Raposa is Professor of Religion Studies and the E.W. Fairchild Professor of American Studies at Lehigh University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1985. He served as Associate Dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh from 2006 to 2008. Prof. Raposa received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Yale University, and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. He is the author of three books, Peirce’s Philosophy of Religion (Indiana, 1989), Boredom and the Religious Imagination (Virginia, 1999), and Meditation & the Martial Arts (Virginia, 2003); he is presently completing a book entitled Theosemiotic: Religion as Rereading in a World Perfused with Signs (under contract with Fordham University Press). In addition, Raposa has published numerous articles and reviews, many of the articles focused on the thought of Charles S. Peirce and the relevance of pragmatism for contemporary philosophy of religion.

—Friday, October 2, 2015—

Breakfast Plenary: Stéphanie Walsh Matthews

“What’s Semiotics Got to Do with It?”

Contemporary Semiotics has a reach that extends to all forms of inquiry in the natural and social sciences, the humanities and beyond. Scholars have demonstrated the necessary bridge that Semiotics provides to burgeoning interdisciplinary fields, and have defined Semiotics’ essential role in erecting the scaffolding for evolutionary inquiries into neuroscience, and explorations ranging from anthropological doings to literary knowings. Semiotic research can be ubiquitous; although this is its strength, it is also, unfortunately, its weakness. In order to play the significant role it has set out for itself, the science of signs must always bear the responsibilities of true scientific inquiry, humanitarian curiosity, and the use of fundamental approaches and theoretical models. This talk will present the world of Semiotics and its functions, focusing on how Semiotics should be introduced to undergraduate and graduate students, and introducing researchers to the wide array of possibilities afforded by Semiotics.

Stephanie Walsh MatthewsStéphanie Walsh Matthews is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Ryerson University, in Toronto. She is also the Director of the interdisciplinary Arts and Contemporary Studies Program. She is the Co-Editor of Semiotica and serves on a number of boards for international Semiotic organisations and societies. Her current research uses semiotics and robotics to investigate language practices of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Luncheon Plenary: Frank J. Macke

“Images of Love: Intimacy, Adolescence, and the Flesh of Desire”

In this plenary presentation, I address the concept of evolutionary love from the standpoint of, first, the family as a fundamental, organic human system of connection, and second, the lived-experience of adolescence as a transitional moment of attachment and connection to the world outside of the developing person’s primary psychological and relational matrix. Although Peirce’s concept of evolutionary love, particularly his focus on the “agapastic” development of thought, tends toward a distinctive conception of history and the pragmaticist mind, my strategic adaptation of Peirce will concern itself with the problematic of desire as it addresses the notion of beauty. My argument is that beauty has come to elude consciousness in much of contemporary life. So much of current existence has come to be thematized by conformity with images—not the telos/imago of verbal narrative as it had interwoven perceptual horizons for generations of persons captivated by the mythic symbols of their culture, but the visual picture-image of people attempting to do things they have been persuaded to do. In addition to my reflections on the writing of Peirce, I will integrate the work of Bernard Stiegler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Erik Erikson, and the British object-relations theorists.

Frank Macke Photo 2Frank J. Macke is Professor of Communication Theory, Semiotics, and Rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at Mercer University in Macon, GA. His work is frequently published in the fields of continental philosophy, semiotics, phenomenological psychology, and communication theory.  He earned his Ph. D. in the Philosophy of Human Communication at Southern Illinois University and completed a degree in psychotherapy from the Mercer University School of Medicine. He is a founding Fellow of the International Communicology Institute and is a Fellow of the Mercer University Commons.  He has recently published The Experience of Human Communication: Body, Flesh, and Relationship (2015).

Dinner Banquet Keynote Address: Sheril Kirshenbaum

“The Kiss and Human Connection through Time and Space”

There is more to the simple act of kissing than you might think. Drawing upon neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, classical history, popular culture, and more, this session will explore questions such as: When did humans begin to kiss? What can other species teach us about its origins? Why is kissing integral to some cultures and forbidden in others? How do our brains respond to this show of affection? What can kissing tell us about our own relationships? Science, research, art, literature and history converge to tell the story of the human kiss: The most intimate behavior in the human experience.

Sheril KirshenbaumSheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin. She works to enhance public understanding of science and energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. She is also Executive Director of Science Debate, a non-profit initiative encouraging candidates to address science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Sheril Kirshenbaum holds graduate degrees in marine biology and policy. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity’s fondest pastimes; and co-authored, with Chris Mooney, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bloomberg and CNN frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from hydraulic fracturing to climate change. Her work has also been published in scientific journals including Science and Nature and she is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. Sheril speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums. She has appeared in documentaries and been a guest on such programs as CBS This Morning and The Today Show.

—Saturday, October 3, 2015—

Breakfast Plenary: Ronald C. Arnett

“Communicative Weight and Height: Semioethics”

The field of semioethics was first conceptualized by Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio. I begin by reviewing their work and related insights on semioethics. I proceed with an examination of Emmanuel Levinas’s project of ethics as first philosophy, which can also be considered as semioethic. Levinas’s semioethics commences with the face of the other, pivoting attention from the visual to the audio, and then to a signification that is before and beyond time, an immemorial ethical echo that charges one with unending responsibility. I conclude with a discussion of everyday communication as saturated with weight, height, and a semioethics that require uniqueness of response as shaped by responsibility and as stretched within a web of obligation that is tied to the long before, the particular now, and the not yet.

Ronald C. Arnett -April 2014Ronald C. Arnett (Ph.D., Ohio University, 1978) is professor and chair of the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies and the Henry Koren, C.S.Sp., Endowed Chair for Scholarly Excellence at Duquesne University. He is the author/coauthor of nine books. His recent work includes Communication Ethics in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt’s Rhetoric of Warning and Hope, An Overture to Philosophy of Communication: The Carrier of Meaning (with Annette Holba), and Conflict between Persons: The Origins of Leadership (with Leeanne Bell McManus and Amanda McKendree).

Luncheon Presidential Address: Marcel Danesi

“Love Is Not a Sign, Romance Is: The Transformation of the Body into Culture

Love is a universal feeling that takes various forms, as Plato and other ancient philosophers observed. One of these forms involves eroticism and romance, leading to differentiated courtship rituals and culture-specific perceptions of romance. The purpose of this address is to look at the practices of romance in the western world and how they came into being, and also why and how they are migrating to other cultures in the global village. The underlying perspective is that love is based in bio-affective processes that are then projected into the semiosphere where they gain value (in both the Saussurean sense and in Peirce’s idea of object). Romantic traditions can reveal many fundamental principles of semiosis, and especially how the “factual world” (the Umwelt) is transformed into the “artifactual” world (the Innenwelt). Emphasizing this kind of topic, which is gaining popularity throughout society and academia, is important for semioticians to explore, in order to counteract the ever-broadening determinism of theories of the body-mind nexus in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

Marcel Danesi, photoMarcel Danesi is President of the Semiotic Society of America. He is Full Professor of linguistic anthropology and Director of the Program in Semiotics and Communication Theory at the University of Toronto. He has published extensively in the fields of linguistics and semiotics. Among his most recent publications are: Signs of Crime: Introducing Forensic Semiotics (2013), The History of the Kiss: The Birth of Popular Culture (2013), and Encyclopedia of Media and Communications (2012). He is currently Editor-in-Chief of Semiotica and of the book series “Semiotics and Popular Culture,” published by Palgrave Macmillan. For his work in semiotics he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1998.

Plenary Roundtable: John Coletta – Gary Shank – Steven Skaggs 

John Coletta, “Love Is Metaphysical Gravity”: “Evolutionary Love,” Physiosemiosis, and the Rockonomics of Dollar Stones

Using examples from geology, especially from the self-organizing phenomenon of “sorted patterned ground” (Kessler and Werner 2003), and from economics, especially in the context of Peirce’s “Evolutionary Love” (1893) paper, I discuss (1) the physiosemiosis or “rockonomics” of the dollar stone (sign), (2) how Peirce’s “three modes of evolution” are present even in geological systems (see the Peircean “agapasm” of R. Buckminster Fuller’s “Love is metaphysical gravity”) and are necessary for a compassionate and scientific design of economic ones. Finally, I explore (3) how causality gives way to its own irrelevance (Hofstadter): if stones are an epiphenomenon of atoms, and “sorted patterned ground” an epiphenomenon of stones (an “epiphenomenon” being for Hofstadter that patterned integrity which is made possible by but is in effect irrelevant to that which makes, which key paradox Hofstadter calls “responsible irrelevance”), then money and cash flow may be understood as epiphenomena of biogeochemical cycling and energy flow. However, the “responsible” of Hofstadter’s “responsible irrelevance,” taking a cue from Peirce’s “Evolutionary Love,” must function as both responsible for AND responsible to—or become “irresponsible relevance.”

ColettaJohn Coletta, Ph.D., is Professor of English and Coordinator of the Environmental Studies Minor and the Biomedical Writing Minor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. A former vice president and president of the Semiotic Society of America, Coletta serves on the editorial board of The American Journal of Semiotics. He specializes or has an ongoing interest in biosemiotic criticism, bio- and ecosemiotics, physiosemiotics, the poetry of John Clare, the history and representation of ecological ideas, political ecologies of social justice, postmodernism and ecology, posthumanism, and the literary semiotics of Umberto Eco.

 Gary Shank, “The Hermeneutic Bubble”

Heidegger drew upon the concept of the Hermeneutic Circle in order to illustrate how the reader and the text interact to create an ongoing and possibly never ending loop of interpretations. This notion has been expanded beyond literary texts to real world “texts,” particularly within cultural contexts. Indeed, hermeneutics has been one of the prominent analytical approaches of semiology. In this presentation I would like to expand upon the notion of the Hermeneutic Circle to formulate a conceptual process I call the Hermeneutic Bubble. It is an homage to the biosemiotic realization that semiosic, nonverbal creatures seem to operate within a “bubble” of interpretation that they use to try to ensure their survival. What happens when these biosemiotic concepts are brought to bear to cultural contexts? I will define, expand upon, and illustrate some examples of the “instant hermeneutics” that takes place within these culturally crafted Hermeneutic Bubbles.

me2 - Version 3Gary Shank is Professor of Educational Research and Educational Psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of numerous articles on qualitative research methods and semiotics, as well as the author of several research methodology textbooks. He is currently writing Unlocking the Potential of Qualitative Research for Cambridge University Press and The Semiotic Researcher in the Age of Signs for DeGruyter Mouton. He is also an innovative field researcher. His projects currently include studying boxing trainers as educators, working with caregivers of the most resistant homeless individuals, and interviewing parents and teachers of fifth graders from inner city schools who are learning the dances and culture of ballroom dancing.

Steven Skaggs, “FireSigns: Some Conceptual Tools”

FireSigns, to be published in 2016 by MIT Press applies Peircean semiotics to graphic design. Certain ideas are developed that are proposed as conceptual tools to be used in design analysis. As the book’s primary audience is graphic designers, these tools are elaborated as diagrams, images and drawings; I will display several of these and explain the Peircean concepts they exemplify.

Steven Skaggs PhotoSteven Skaggs is Professor of Design at the Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville. Much of his time has been spent as a visual artist, and he has won international awards for his font designs. His first book, Logos: The Development of Visual Symbols (1994) detailed the progression of all 254 developmental sketches for a logo design. As a calligraphic artist, he has had his work featured in the collections of the Akademie der Künst (Berlin) and the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Miami. He founded SEMIOS-L, the first Internet discussion list for semiotics, in the days before the web. He has been writing on semiotics since 1997, and his articles have appeared in many semiotic journals and volumes. His book FireSigns (to appear in 2016 MIT Press) proposes a comprehensive semiotic theory for graphic design.

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About Farouk Seif

Professor Emeritus, Antioch University Seattle, Washington, a registered architect, an artist, a Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, and the former Executive Director of the Semiotic Society of America.