Conversation with Deborah Eicher-Catt

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Deborah Eicher-Catt, Chair of the 2017 Program Committee

Farouk:  Hello Deborah. For the new members of SSA and those who have yet to meet you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?     

Deborah:  Absolutely! When I’m not currently doing SSA program committee work, I am busy serving as Coordinator for Penn State York’s Communication Arts & Sciences baccalaureate program. In this program, I teach courses in interpersonal relationships, communication research, speech and human behavior, and family and organizational communication. I developed a course in semiotics that I have taught to undergraduates several times. I also serve as the Coordinator for our new Women’s and Gender Studies minor on our campus. My teaching contributions to this program include: introduction to gender studies, feminist theory, and a course in gender, diversity, and the media. I am completing my twenty-sixth year of college teaching. Last year I was the recipient of Penn State University’s prestigious Teaching Fellow Award. The year before that I received my campus’ teaching award.

Farouk:  How long have you been active in SSA?

Deborah:  I have attended SSA meetings over the last fifteen years or so. I always look forward to the annual conferences. It is wonderful to meet so many interesting people from a host of academic disciplines and to make what I consider to be lasting relationships with many. I think the inter-disciplinary nature of our Society is one of its true strengths. As symbolic of my dedication to the field, I guest edited a special issue on anthropologist and communication theorist Gregory Bateson for the American Journal of Semiotics in 2003 (19:1-4), published under the accomplished editorship of our late colleague, John Deely. I also guest edited a special issue on semiotics and the sacred for Listening: Journal of Communication Ethics, Religion, and Culture in 2013. Most recently, I served on the Executive Board and Chaired the Roberta Kevelson Award Committee a couple of years ago.

Farouk:  I’m always fascinated by when and how others began their semiotics exploration. For me, I became interested in semiotics when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation “Semiotics and Urban Morphogenesis” in mid 80’s. When and how did you become interested in semiotics?

Deborah:  I first became interested in semiotics when I was completing my M.A. thesis at California State University, Chico in 1991. I conducted a qualitative intercultural study using semiotic phenomenology. I focused on famous Japanese author and social critic, Yukio Mishima’s short-story, “Patriotism” for my thesis. It is a particularly uncanny story about ritual seppuku (death by honor), given that Mishima ultimately ended his life in the same way. I wanted to focus on the mythology of patriotism that fueled his life and death. In addition, I was intrigued by the idea that texts (such as a novel or short story) only “come alive” in our reading of them. So, I turned to Roland Barthes’ work to help me unpack my ideas. Later, in my Ph.D. coursework at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale from 1991-95 (under the tutelage of Richard L. Lanigan), I was exposed to Communicology which encompasses the semiotic and phenomenological insights from the likes of Roman Jakobson, Charles S. Peirce, Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Foucault, to name just a few. I used Jakobson extensively in my dissertation, given that I was interested in explicating the difficult communicative dynamics involved in “visiting” one’s children rather than having full custody of them every day. Bateson’s work on the “epistemology of the sacred” also figured prominently in my dissertation and I grew to appreciate more and more his ecological view of human relationships—which I now incorporate into my teaching of interpersonal communication. I began to interrogate the inter-relationships I saw specifically between Bateson’s work and the semiotics of C.S. Peirce and this interest still motivates much of my thinking today.  

Farouk:  Speaking of what motivates you, what was the trigger for the theme of the 2017 SSA Annual Meeting: “The Play of Signs and the Signs of Play”?

Deborah:  While the program committee considered many viable themes for our 2017 conference, this theme received the most votes and I must say I am happy with the choice. After all, play is a vital medium of creativity and learning throughout our lives. As we know, Peirce found the concept appealing and included it his notion of musement as “pure play.” He, of course, drew insights from Friedrich Schiller’s short treatise, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” (originally published in 1795) where Schiller talks about our “play impulse” as a much-needed balancing mechanism with the “formal impulse” or that of rational thinking. As our official Call for Papers recognizes, the concept of play thus occupies a key position in many semiotic theories. As I wrote in a recent piece for Semiotica, I think we should learn to take play more seriously, given its close relationship to personal and socio-cultural evolution and learning. So, I think semioticians have much to offer the many disciplines who traverse the ground of play and our conference gives us the opportunity to engage in some “serious play!” As social historian Johan Huizinga claims in his insightful text, Homo Ludens (1949), play establishes a pivotal point of interaction among us from which cultures and civilizations symbolically arise.

Farouk:  Your comment reminds me of how playfulness is significant in the design process where we creatively reframe socio-cultural challenges. There is hardly any playfulness without seriousness, or seriousness without playfulness. You know, it’s a paradoxical phenomenon. I’m sure you’re well aware of the current world situation that seems perplexing, yet, holds a keen opportunity for us as semioticians. How does this year’s theme respond to socio-cultural, economic, and political challenges that our global world encounters?

Deborah:  While at first glance it may appear that our theme is contradictory to our current world situation (especially if we think of play as mere “idle engagement”), I think the program committee got it right in wanting to highlight the nature and function of play as a vital human resource. There is a growing understanding among many disciplines (including the business world) that the concept of “serious play” is really what productive living is all about. With the idea of “play,” we are able to focus upon imaginative and creative thought—vital elements in all effective decision making and problem solving. Dewey understood this well so many years ago when he developed his reflective thinking method. Bring play together with the idea of “seriousness,” and we highlight the simultaneous fact that all actions have effects (whether well intended or otherwise)—which, of course, is an integral aspect of American Pragmatism. So, our theme this year allows us to insightfully respond to the socio-cultural, economic, and political challenges we face with hopefully a renewed awareness of the benefits of a pragmatic way of being in the world, understood within a frame of “serious play.”

Farouk:  Why did the SSA decide to have the 2017 annual meeting in Mexico? And what is the desired outcome of this annual meeting?

Deborah:  I was personally delighted when our SSA colleague, Dora Ivonne Alvarez Tamayo from Puebla University graciously offered to host this year’s event. I was equally excited that the SSA overwhelmingly approved the recommendation from the Executive Board. The program committee is thrilled to be expanding our borders of outreach and encourages our Latin American colleagues to actively participate in this year’s events. Especially given the current political stance of our new administration, I know the SSA wants to show a sign of solidarity (not division) with our fabulous host country, Mexico. The Society has always been committed to inclusion and expansion—not exclusion and insular thinking. While the official language of our conference remains English, we are arranging for translation services and hope to accommodate a variety of speakers. I know we will benefit greatly from the many efforts our host institution is making in creating a welcoming and inviting atmosphere for all. We extend our sincere gratitude to Dora and her fabulous local host committee for their dedication and commitment to SSA!

Farouk:  Yes, many thanks to Dora and her colleagues. I was impressed by their professionalism and gracious hospitality when I visited Puebla last September. Due to the thought-provoking theme and the exciting location, I anticipate this year’s SSA meeting will draw a large number of colleagues, particularly, from Latin America. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first SSA meeting to take place outside the USA and Canada. What are your expectations of and hope for the 2017 SSA meeting? How are members of the Program Committee preparing to handle and coordinate with local colleagues such a large number of participants?

Deborah:  So, I’d like to encourage everyone to participate in this year’s SSA conference. Yes, Farouk, my hope is that we have the largest ever number of participants. We hope to see our long-time, committed SSA members travel south to Puebla (perhaps signifying our dedication to embracing inclusion and cultural diversity). And we also welcome our Central and South American colleagues to come north to join us in solidarity. Puebla serves as an exciting nexus point and the program committee is committed to making the journeys of all extremely worthwhile. We are in the process of putting together a slate of interesting papers, panels, keynote and plenary speakers on our engaging theme. We are also hoping to arrange some cultural activities, events, and local tours. In addition, given our recent loss of our respected colleague, John Deely, plans are in the works to celebrate his life and scholarly legacy to the field of semiotics, an event not to be missed.

Farouk:  Thank you Deborah, for all that you do for the Semiotic Society of America. I’m really looking forward to the 42nd SSA meeting in Puebla.

Deborah:  Thanks, Farouk, for this opportunity to share my enthusiasm for SSA and the upcoming conference in beautiful Puebla!

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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.