The Material Culture of Temperature: A Semiotics of Measurement

Scott W. Schwartz, Anthropology
Faculty Advisor: Prof. Alexander Bauer
Project Website: The Material Culture of Temperature: A Semiotics of Measurement

The Material Culture of Temperature: A Semiotics of Measurement

My dissertation investigates the material culture of temperature. Applying theory and methodology from the discipline archaeology (specifically the sub-discipline of contemporary archaeology), I investigate how temperatures are produced and their social significance. Just as potsherds or lithic blades are studied to derive interpretations of the economics, politics, and beliefs of Neolithic populations, my project treats temperatures as cultural artifacts deserving of similar analysis. Prior to the 17th century temperatures did not exist. While cosmologists affirm that fluctuations in heat are as old as this universe, temperature has a short history. As a culturally produced system of observing fluctuations in heat, temperature is illustrative of a dominant quantified epistemology that developed alongside the process of capitalization in Western Europe. Temperatures are one of the many classes of numbers that saturate capitalized landscapes (including speed limits, calories, prices, times, and dates). By investigating the material production of temperatures, my project critiques this epistemology and its broader social, historical, political, and economic impacts.

As an archaeologist of numbers, my work examines the tension between the discursive meaning and the material composition of artifacts, drawing upon Karen Barad’s insight that materiality and meaning cannot be disentangled. In this undertaking, I rely on Charles Peirce’s semiotics as a framework for analyzing the interaction of objects, signs, and interpretants. Temperatures appearing on iPhones or billboards, for example, are significantly estranged from the material interactions that register the fluctuations in heat from which they are derived (e.g., electrons responding to nickel chromium with greater or lesser resistance). I refer to this estrangement as semiotic stratigraphy. In presenting the data (temperatures) I have collected for my dissertation, I am developing novel visualizations that represent this process of social dematerialization. This work-in-progress may be previewed here.

Acknowledging that much of the interpretive work in archaeology results in top-down narratives from academic specialists, my project opens up interpretation to the public. Users of the project website are able to review the assembled semiotic stratigraphies, and provide their own interpretations of what the artifact (temperature) is signaling. I will collected these interpretations for visualization on the website.