Aurora Donzelli

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 2018-2019


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?

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.

Related Disciplines

Previous Courses

Language and the Poetics of Emotions

Open , Seminar—Spring

How do language and communicative practices shape emotional experience? What are emotions, and how can we study them ethnographically? How do our everyday ways of interacting create emotional meaning? This course focuses on the role of language and communicative dynamics in mediating and shaping emotional experience. Since the early 1990s, influential works in linguistic and cultural anthropology have questioned universalizing views of emotion, advocating the idea that emotions are linguistic and sociocultural constructs are grounded in historical and local specific contexts. These studies have challenged approaches to emotions based on binary oppositions (i.e., mind versus body and emotion versus reason)—as reflected, for example, in popular and scholarly tendencies of associating emotions with stereotypical images of femininity seen in opposition and hierarchical relations to reason (or rationality). Another line of research has explored the co-articulation between the linguistic expression of emotions and the process of subject-formation, highlighting how certain ways of speaking may generate or challenge moral dispositions, domains of experience, and structures of feelings. Throughout the semester, students will engage a series of ethnographic case studies aimed at exploring the nexus of language, emotions, and everyday cultural practices. Ranging from the relation between ideologies of gender and linguistic styles of affective expression in the Pacific to the intersection of romantic love, marriage practices, and the development of literacy in Nepal; from the connection between emotional ethos and styles of religious devotion in Indonesia and Mexico to the poetic expressions of resistance in Egypt and Nigeria; and from the analysis of the emotion in doctor-patient interactions to the study of dynamics of popularity and exclusion among American teenagers—this course will explore the linguistic constitution of emotional experience and subjectivity. Our aim will be to explore the linguistic poetics of emotions and the cultural politics of affect to expand our understanding of the significance of language in shaping our world.

Related Disciplines