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Structures or Intentions? Meaning in Adorning Bodies from Barthes to Grice to Darwin

24 janvier 2024, 18h, Marylinn JOHNSON (University of San Diego)

We adorn the body for a number of reasons. There are, of course, the practical reasons. I put on a thick sweater when I feel chilly, add some socks when I shiver as my feet touch the cold bathroom tiles. But I don’t just put on any sweater or any socks. The sweaters and socks in my home are there for a reason, brought into my space because of reasons that outstrip just the practical. Clothes also communicate to others. In the 1950s and 1960s Roland Barthes undertook what is seen as the most exhaustive attempt to codify clothing as a language. Going through French fashion magazines Elle and Jardin des Modes he applied a semiotic approach attempting to isolate the links between signifier and signified–between some part of a garment and the thing it stands for. However, I will argue that the semiotic approach fails and opens up the possibility of another approach. In Adorning Bodies (Bloomsbury 2022) I argue that the right approach to understanding the meaning of clothing follows in the tradition of philosopher of language Paul Grice. In particular, I argue that his distinction between natural and non-natural meaning can apply to much of what we do with bodies and adornment. I also will present and defend my own, new category of meaning called imitation of natural meaning which builds on Grice. And finally, I will explain how our adornment practices connect with theories by Charles Darwin and are shared by animals, who also engage in imitation of natural meaning.