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Taking the language stance in a material world

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This paper investigates a special kind of social meaning-making manifest in how we experience static objects and properties of our everyday world. This happens, for example, when we recognize objects like vacuum cleaners, sliced tomatoes, and sneakers as placed in special sites in the environment. Given the compositional features of such images, we see them as designed to accomplish communicative functions. It is argued that object configurations of this kind are recognized as externalized ostensive cues. They are seen as having been created with the intention of setting off an intersubjective mode of perception. This significantly changes the perceiver’s semiotic exploration of the scene. From a ‘private’ mode of sense-making mostly structured by reference to episodic, autobiographical experiential content, the perceiver takes a language stance. In other words, the perceiver adopts a qualitatively different meaning-constructing strategy in dealing with such images. Defending this claim, we present evidence from an empirical investigation of 20 participants’ construals of photographic images depicting everyday static objects. We show that a subset of these object configurations (signals) evoke a special kind of socially responsive attitude as manifested in participants’ introspective reports. The importance of these findings is brought out by discussion of parallels in neuro-cognitive work and how ostensive cues influence infant behavior.
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Keywords: conventionality; language stance; material signals; non-verbal communication; objects

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 2, 2009

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