Aurora Donzelli

on leave fall semester

BA, MA, University of Pavia, Italy. PhD, University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy. Special interests in linguistic anthropology, political oratory and ritual speech, vernacular practical philosophies, ethnopoetics, missionization, and the emergence of colonial discourse genres; ethnographic fieldwork in Southeast Asia (upland Sulawesi and East Timor); author of several articles on language and ethnicity, local theories of action, power and emotions, verbal art, and language ideologies. FCT postdoctoral research fellow at Institute of Theoretical and Computational Linguistics in Lisbon, and Endangered Languages Academic Programme (SOAS) in London. SLC, 2009–

Undergraduate Courses 2020-2021

Anthropology

Brands and Branding: The Anthropology and Semiotics of Late Capitalism

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Spring

We live in a world of brands. Even more than commodities, brands saturate our late capitalist present, filling global cityscapes and people’s imaginations. We see brands not only wherever we look—on the streets, in our houses, on our bodies, etc.—but anything is now being (re)branded: Experiences, services, universities, hospitals, job seekers, political candidates, countries, cities...even wars and pandemics can be made objects of branding and rebranding processes. But what are brands, really? This seminar seeks to answer this question using the tools of semiotic and linguistic anthropology (i.e. the study of language as a cultural practice and of the role of signs in building social relations). Through a series of selected readings and ethnographic exercises, we will examine the ubiquity of brands (and branding) and develop a critical understanding of how they circulate and produce meaning. During the semester, students will learn about the world of youth and brand fashion in South India, the global spread of Hello Kitty and Japanese cute culture, the boom in personal brand training in the Silicon Valley’s New Economy, the rampant growth of city and nation branding campaigns, the interplay between the authentic and the counterfeit in high-end clothing and extra-virgin olive oil brands, and the rise of woke brands and corporate social responsibility in the United States and beyond. These case studies will foster reflections and debates about brands’ potential to reshape the human sensorium and restructure people’s subjectivity; how brands may operate both as technologies of localization and as vehicles of cultural, linguistic, and economic globalization; how they may function as a form of public currency, while being legally protected as private property; and how they may, at once, mobilize forms of critical consumption and exploit the free labor of consumers. Through this intellectual journey, students will achieve a more sophisticated understanding of the role of language and visual communication in the spreading of late/neoliberal capitalism.

Faculty

The Anthropology of Language and Material Culture

Open , Lecture—Spring

A long-standing tradition within Western thought has conceptualized language as a system of signs clearly separate from material reality and aimed at enabling the transmission of information. The divide between the intangible realm of language and the material domain of things has dominated scholarship across several disciplines, leaking into common sense. This lecture course questions this deeply entrenched divide and suggests that, in order to understand our contemporary moment, we need to bring the linguistic and the materialinto the same analytical field. The course readings provide an introduction to anthropology’s theories and methods through an investigation of how words and things mediate and enable human experience, creating the complex semiotic landscapes that we inhabit. Throughout the semester, students will be introduced to a series of theoretical and ethnographic readings aimed at illustrating the blurred boundaries between words and things, subjects and objects, signs and referents, artworks and artifacts, gifts and commodities, alienable and inalienable possessions. On the one hand, the course will challenge the classic language-world divide that has dominated both academic scholarship and popular common sense. Contrary to the view that language is exclusively a system of symbols that stand for and allow speaking about the world, a series of theoretical readings, practical exercises, and ethnographic case studies will reveal the materiality and performativity of language. Through this journey, language will appear as a material entity and as a form of action endowed with the power to shape the world. On the other hand, the course will dialogue with the emerging cross-disciplinary interest in materiality to invert the longstanding exploration of how people make things and to generate a new reflection on how things make people. Contrary to the deeply entrenched opposition between subjects and objects, a selection of essays drawn from recent material culture studies will show how things mediate social relations and how inanimate objects may, in fact, be endowed with a form of agency.

Faculty

Previous Courses

How Things Talk

Open , Lecture—Spring

A long-standing tradition within Western thought has conceptualized language as a system of signs clearly separate from material reality and aimed at enabling the transmission of information. The divide between the intangible realm of language and the material domain of things has dominated scholarship across several disciplines, leaking into common sense. This lecture course questions this deeply entrenched divide and suggests that, in order to understand our contemporary moment, we need to bring into the same analytical field both the linguistic and the material. The course readings provide an introduction to anthropology’s theories and methods through an investigation of how words and things mediate and enable human experience, creating the complex semiotic landscapes that we inhabit. Throughout the semester, students will be introduced to a series of theoretical and ethnographic readings aimed at illustrating the blurred boundaries between words and things, subjects and objects, signs and referents, artworks and artifacts, gifts and commodities, alienable and inalienable possessions. On the one hand, the course will challenge the classic language-world divide that has dominated both academic scholarship and popular common sense. Contrary to the view that language is exclusively a system of symbols that stand for and allow speaking about the world, a series of theoretical readings, practical exercises, and ethnographic case studies will reveal the materiality and performativity of language. Through this journey, language will appear as a material entity and as a form of action endowed with the power to shape the world. On the other hand, the course will dialogue with the emerging cross-disciplinary interest in materiality to invert the longstanding exploration of how people make things and generate a new reflection on how things make people. Contrary to the deeply entrenched opposition between subjects and objects, a selection of essays drawn from recent material culture studies will show how things mediate social relations and how inanimate objects may, in fact, be endowed with a form of agency.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Language and Capitalism

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Spring

One of the effects of advanced capitalism is to complicate the distinction between words and objects and between humans and things. Given the radicalization of market ideologies of our contemporary moment, what counts as inalienable spiritual values opposed to alienable material entities? What should and what should not have a price? Which is the original, and which is the copy? Is a brand a symbol that stands for a product or a product in itself? How can we distinguish medium from message? Is kindness a virtuous demeanor or a form of immaterial affective labor that requires the performance of specific acts of speech? This advanced seminar will engage the role of language—both as a symbolic code and as a material tool—in the spreading of late/neoliberal capitalism. While most analyses of the world’s current order tend to focus on political and economic aspects, this course explores how certain ways of speaking and using language may partake in producing capitalist forms of reasoning and practical conduct. Students will learn, for example, how to look at graphic artifacts (e.g., street signage, wall texts, typefaces, letterforms, logos, and other types of graphic media) as socially and politically meaningful semiotic technologies that shape our contemporary capitalist landscapes. They also will learn how to analyze new protocols of discourse that characterize our everyday lives: the customer satisfaction survey, the service encounter, the checklist, the logbook, the flowchart, the electoral mission statement, the training session, etc. In spite of their apparent ordinariness, these discursive genres/textual artifacts are key for the production of the self-improving and self-reflexive subjects required by the regimes of moral accountability and the forms of market rationality that characterize our contemporary moment. While reading ethnographic analyses of specific technologies of discourse, students will engage broader questions: How pervasive are neoliberal structures of practice? To what extent can neoliberalism be represented as an overarching and coherent global trend generated by the homogenizing forces of Western capitalism? Is our moral and affective experience completely shaped by the extension of economic rationality to all areas of life? The aim is to show how, within a regime of advanced capitalism, life and labor unfold through complex interplays of semiotic codes, affective registers, and material objects.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Language Matters: Exploring the Cultural Grammars of Capitalism

Advanced , Seminar—Year

A long-standing tradition within Western thought has conceptualized language as a system of signs that are clearly separate from material reality and are aimed at enabling the transmission of information. The divide between the intangible realm of language and the material domain of things has dominated scholarship across several disciplines, leaking into common sense. This yearlong course questions this deeply entrenched divide and suggests that, in order to understand the contemporary radicalization of market ideologies, we need to bring into the same analytical field the linguistic and the material. On the one hand, the course will dialogue with the emerging cross-disciplinary interest in material culture studies to invert the long-standing exploration of how people make things and generate a new reflection on how things make people and how inanimate objects may, in fact, be endowed with a form of agency. On the other hand, the course will engage the role of language—both as a symbolic code and as a material tool—in the spreading of late/neoliberal capitalism. While most analyses of the world’s current order tend to focus on political and economic aspects, this course explores how certain ways of speaking and using language may partake in producing capitalist forms of reasoning and practical conduct. Students will learn, for example, how to look at graphic artifacts (e.g., street signage, wall texts, typefaces, letterforms, logos, and other types of graphic media) as socially and politically meaningful semiotic technologies that shape our contemporary capitalist landscapes. Students also will learn how to analyze new protocols of discourse that characterize our everyday lives: the customer satisfaction survey, the service encounter, the checklist, the logbook, the flowchart, the electoral mission statement, the training session, etc. In spite of their apparent ordinariness, these discursive genres and textual artifacts are key for the production of the self-improving and self-reflexive subjects required by the regimes of moral accountability and the forms of market rationality that characterize our contemporary moment. While reading ethnographic analyses of specific technologies of discourse, students will engage broader questions: How pervasive are neoliberal structures of practice? To what extent can neoliberalism be represented as an overarching and coherent global trend generated by the homogenizing forces of Late Western Capitalism? Is our moral and affective experience completely shaped by the extension of economic rationality to all areas of life?

Faculty
Related Disciplines

First-Year Studies: How Things Talk: The Linguistic Materialities of Late Capitalism

Open , FYS—Year

One of the effects of advanced capitalism is to complicate the distinction between words and objects and between humans and things. Within the radicalization of market ideologies characterizing our contemporary moment, what counts as inalienable spiritual values as opposed to alienable material entities? Is kindness a virtuous demeanor or a form of immaterial affective labor that requires the performance of specific acts of speech? What should and what should not have a price? Which is the original, and which is the copy? Is a brand a symbol that stands for a product or a product in itself? How can we distinguish medium from message? This course provides an introduction to anthropology’s theories and methods through an investigation of how words and things mediate and enable human experience, creating the complex semiotic landscapes that we inhabit. The aim is to problematize the conventional conceptualizations of language and materiality and show how, within a regime of advanced capitalism, life and labor unfold through complex interplays of semiotic codes, affective registers, and material objects. Throughout the year, students will be introduced to a series of theoretical and ethnographic readings aimed at illustrating the blurred boundaries between words and things, subjects and objects, signs and referents, artworks and artifacts, gifts and commodities, and alienable and inalienable possessions. Aside from achieving a deeper understanding of how our life is shaped by our relation with things and language, students will also be introduced to the craft of ethnography as a method of research and a genre of writing. At the beginning of the fall semester, each participant will be assigned two objects and will be asked to explore them—as an individual item or as a class of objects—through a series of short essays and ethnographic tasks, which may or may not provide the material for a larger conference paper. Contrary to the classic approach in which the ethnographer engages the description of a specific cultural context through the narratives, beliefs, experiences, and actions of human agents, these thing-centered essays will provide mini-ethnographic sketches of how objects produce cultural meanings and social relations. During biweekly group conference meetings, held throughout the fall semester, students will compare notes on their ongoing thing-ethnographies, share their findings, and discuss their theoretical concerns and methodological problems. Students’ thing-ethnographies will also be presented periodically to the entire class during dedicated workshops. The format of these short presentations will be at the discretion of the participant, but students are encouraged to make use of digital voice recording, photography, and video to illustrate the objects and their contexts of use.

Faculty
Related Disciplines