Language and the shift from signs to practices in cultural inquiry

History and Theory 39 (3):289–310 (2000)
Abstract
A model of culture as a partially coherent system of signs comprised the most widely employed instrument for analyzing cultural meaning among the new cultural historians. However, the model failed to account for meanings that are produced by agents engaged in practices that are not guided by "reading" the contrasts among signs. It also encouraged some analysts to conceive the difference between sign system and concrete practice as that between what is graspable as an intellectual form and what remains inaccessibly material or corporeal. This essay introduces three exemplars of the ties between signs and practices to show how the pragmatics of using signs comprises a structure and a generator of meaning in its own right. In the three exemplars, which are based on the tropes of metonymy, metaphor, and irony, I employ the analytic tools of linguistics to appreciate the non-discursive organization of practice. Analysis of the diverse logics for organizing practice offers promising means for investigating how signs come to seem experientially real for their users. Finally, this view of culture in practice suggests new hypotheses about the possible interdependencies as well as the lack of connection among the elements of a cultural setting
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DOI 10.1111/0018-2656.00132
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