The words "freedom of expression," commonly invoke an emancipatory narrative of struggle against the unenlightened or anti-Enlightenment forces of suppression over centuries. It is a narrative with a clear directionality to it, in which the forces of church, state, and bourgeois morality slowly give way to those of reason, progress, artistic creativity--and above all, democracy. Yet resistance to free speech arises from many directions. Some of this resistance, for instance from Indigenous groups or progressive activists, does not fit the familiar narratives. Understanding conflicts over free speech requires that we examine the modalities of semiotic unfreedom and what risks, transgressions, and harms can be imputed to verbal expression. Defenders of freedom of expression and those who oppose them often presume quite different semiotic ideologies. As a result, they may fail to grasp or take seriously just what the problem between them is. This talk considers the problem of semiotic transgression, acts that can be attributed directly to signs themselves. The field includes libel, slander, blasphemy, obscenity, hate speech, threats, and pornography. These are the kinds of acts that may prompt censorship, taboo, euphemism, or legal sanctions. What is often at stake is a "metapragmatic struggle" over just what is going on, and who has the authority to determine the answer.
A reception will follow the talk in the Robert F. Murphy/Morton H. Fried Department of Anthropology Lounge, Room 465 Schermerhorn Extension.
Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Distinguished University Professor in the Departmentof Anthropology at the University of Michigan. His works on a range of topics in social and cultural theory, and the ethnography and history of Southeast Asia. His books include Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter, and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society, and he was co-editor of The Handbook of Material Culture. He is currently writing a book with the working title Ethics at the Edge of the Human which includes chapters on robots, artificial intelligence, animals, and the end of life.