Welcome to the 2021-22 school year and the UVA Linguistic Anthropology seminar! We will be holding an in-person discussion of an article by Susan Phillips recently published in American Anthropologist, “Gang Graffiti as Totemism”. We will meet outside, if possible. All are invited to read and join! While the article deals with a form of inscription, the analysis is not specifically linguistic.
We look forward to holding future events, some in-person, some on zoom. If you have work in progress you’d like to present or reading group ideas, please get in touch with the linguistics program director, Mark Sicoli.
Linguistic Anthropology Seminar: Friday September 24 2021, 3pm
Author: Susan Phillips, University of Arizona
Title: "Gang Graffiti as Totemism”
Abstract: In Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States, gangs demonstrate a profound interrelationship between street life, mass incarceration, gang cartographies, and the development of meaning, which together act as a form of totemism. Long used in anthropology, the concept of totemism remains powerful analytically because of its ability to describe how intentional oppositions are hinged to surrounding environments. Gang writing allows members to infuse themselves into neighborhoods by spatializing the tie of sympathy between signature, person, and landscape. Gang totemic practices originate from similarity in form as well as shared history, and from the contradiction of knowing a system is constructed while continuing to treat it as if it were primordial. Showing how social meaning is tied to the built environment contributes to decolonizing discourses by further eroding the binary between nature and culture. When combined with critical frameworks that look at power and inequality, the concept of totemism may be revitalized in a manner that respects local understandings, is distilled to its essential component parts, and gains relevance across wide swaths of ethnographic cases. The framework of totemism enables understanding of how urban environments become a locus of gang sentiment, moving away from simplistic ideas of gang territoriality.
Keywords: gangs, totemism, prison, graffiti, critical structuralism
If you would like to receive a copy of the PDF, please contact the linguistics program assistant, Abbi Traaseth.