Semiotic Technologies, Temporal Reckoning, and the Portability of Meaning. Or: Modern Modes of Temporality—Just How Abstract Are They?

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This essay is about meaning and measurement, with particular emphasis on the relation between semiotic technologies and temporal reckoning. It begins by theorizing four ways of framing time. Temporality as metricality focuses on the repetition of tokens of common types. Temporality as performativity focuses on the roots and fruits of a given event. Temporality as reckoning focuses on how one determines when an event occurred or how long an event lasted. And temporality as worldview focuses on the ways a given community (genre, public, discipline, philosophy, register, etc.) frames the nature of time. Temporality as reckoning is then used to question some entrenched claims about temporality as worldview. In particular, the claim that modern modes of temporality are ‘abstract’ (in comparison to so-called premodern, traditional, or everyday modes of temporality) is called into question. In place of pre-theoretical notions like abstraction (and similarly inadequate concepts, such as ‘commensuration,’ ‘quantification,’ and ‘objectification’) a set of fine-grained analytic distinctions is introduced. These may be used to theorize the conditions for and consequences of a technology being relatively portable: its meaningfulness being widely applicable and/or contextually independent. Reflexively, while this essay draws its examples and methods from the domain of time, its general claims are meant to be portable to other domains – from velocity and price to temperature and information.

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Anthropological Theory

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