On Mediation and Material Agency in the Peircean Semeiotic



This chapter seeks to advance our understanding of material agency through an interpretive framework fashioned from the semeiotic ideology of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). In doing so, it attempts to move beyond a rote recital of Peirce’s sign types and their lineaments and toward a larger reading of his philosophical outputs, examining potential points of contact between material agency and Peirce’s thinking on semeiotic functioning. Owing to the contours of a creative mind steeped in mathematics and logic, his is a canon marked by heroic theorising, labyrinthine reasoning and runaway terminology. As such, uncharitable interpretations of Peirce’s writing often evoke words such as ‘impenetrable’ or ‘torturous,’ but it is nevertheless a literature that commands our attention, chiefly because of its non-anthropocentric, anti-Cartesian emphasis on semeiotic mediation. In the Peircean framework, semeiosis is neither bound up in language nor contingent on human consciousness, but rather exists as a relative and relational property tethered to particular experiential settings. Where the human subject is implicated, perception, cognition and belief were understood by Peirce to be engendered by a sensory experience of signs. The phenomenological underpinnings of these themes are explored throughout this chapter and illustrated with reference to a case study involving precontact Aboriginal pottery from southwestern Ontario, Canada.


Material Culture Material Agency Western Basin Human Consciousness Brute Fact 



I would very much like to thank Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris for inviting me to contribute a chapter to this volume. My thinking on this topic has benefitted greatly from their advice and observations. I am also indebted to Robert Preucel, who very kindly read and commented upon an earlier draft of this chapter. Any faults or omissions in this work, however, are entirely my own. Finally, the research described herein was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship, as well as several University of Toronto Open Fellowships.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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