Making Meaning Present: Semiotics and the Ontological Life of Stones in West Africa

Johannes Merz


Semiotics, which is a foundational principle of scientific thought, has also shaped anthropology’s understanding of live stones that serve as shrines in the savannah region of West Africa, such as in the Commune of Cobly of northwestern Benin. Semiotics either reduce live stones and other religious and ontological phenomena to a function of signification or they recast them as semiotic anomalies attributable to the Other. Either way leads to an epistemological paradox in which such phenomena can be rationally understood yet existentially denied. I propose to counter this by introducing a new type of entity, which I call the “onton.” Building on the notion of presence and the anthropology of ontology, I understand ontons as indivisible and non-representational entities that cannot be broken down into different sign components. Ontons are more than meaningful; they are made present in the world when other entities relate to them through the process of presencing that shifts the focus from meaning to action. Presencing, which builds on semiotics, is guided by different practices, which, in turn, can account for ontological diversity and differentiation. I claim that presencing, which allows for ontonic entities, leads to a deeper understanding of ontology and human experience more broadly. Meaning as a basis for communication is thus extended to include presence as a basis for a wider engagement with the world, thereby breaking down difference between humans, animals and things.

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Studies in Media and Communication      ISSN 2325-8071 (Print)   ISSN 2325-808X (Online)

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