Language and Agency in Confinement: The Semiotics of the Carceral State

Magnus Pharao Hansen and Lori Labotka are organizing a panel on language and agency in confinement. Please see the abstract below, and send an abstract to by 3/20 if you are interested in participating.

Incarceration, considered a hallmark of the modern state (Foucault 1975), is only one of the multiple forms of confinement employed by the state to discipline its diverse populations and to enforce its different social structures and norms. Confinement, understood as the limitation of movement and personal liberty, is used in the criminal justice system from the prison’s physical confinement of norm breakers, to community corrections imposed on those deemed deviant or released from prison, to countless collateral consequences that extend well after a prison term, each of which employ technologies of surveillance and various limitations on civil rights. Confinement is further employed in the management of migrants, refugees, and “cultural others” through different forms of surveillance and profiling and in the seemingly benevolent confinement of the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, or the elderly in conditions that are meant to provide care but which also pose severe restrictions on personal movement and choice. Anthropologists have a tradition of studying how humans exert agency within confined conditions such as imprisonment, internment, detainment or “deportability” (de Genova 2002, 2007). This panel focuses on exploring how people who are subject to various forms of confinement use semiotic means of meaning-making to exert agency within the limitations, restrictions, and surveillance created by their confinement. It combines ethnographic approaches to language and semiotics with anthropological research on resistance as a “diagnostic of power” (Abu-Lughod 1990: 42) to better understand the power relations forged through the types of confinement explored and the possibilities for change. We ask: How can voices be cloaked, re-encoded or re-directed to bypass surveillance or barriers? How can semiotic systems be devised to create new forms of sociality and care within confined environments? And how can deliberate forms of language use and communicative strategies serve as an instrument with which to work towards liberation?

The panel fits well with the conference theme of “Why Anthropology Matters” by interrogating what a linguistic and ethnographic lens can offer in terms of understanding and resisting the carceral state. It also fits well with current research from the fields of linguistic, political and educational anthropology, as well as the anthropology of labor and migration – and the organizers are particularly interested in papers that are theoretically grounded in the fields semiotics, phenomenology and the study of language and communication.