Signs of Violence: Semiotic Violence and the U.S. Capitol Insurrection

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Mona Lena Krook, Professor at the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, will present for us today. The presentation is titled "Signs of Violence: Semiotic Violence and the U.S. Capitol Insurrection".

Political violence is often defined as the use, or threatened use, of force to advance political ends. A focus on physical force, however, does not capture the full range of this phenomenon. In this paper, I develop the concept of semiotic violence, which I argue is a particularly pervasive form that uses signs to communicate violence.

In the first section, I draw on broader conceptual work to argue in favor of understanding political violence – like other forms of violence – as a continuum of acts involving violations of integrity. I show how perpetrators employ semiotic violence to amplify or invoke other types of violence: physical, psychological, sexual, and economic. In the second section, I elaborate four expressions of semiotic violence: words, images, symbols, and gestures. I note that examples of semiotic violence are prevalent in accounts and debates on political violence, although they are not recognized as such – or given appropriate theoretical and empirical attention. In the third section, I apply these tools to an analysis of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Using interpretive methods, I focus on three examples of semiotic violence on January 6, 2021: the parading of the Confederate flag through the Capitol Rotunda, the vandalism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, and the hanging of a noose on a platform on the Capitol grounds. These cases reveal that semiotic violence is a key component of repertoires of political violence. They also show how semiotic analysis can shed deeper light on the meanings of these acts: rioters not only sought to undermine American political institutions, but also sought to reinstate a racist and sexist social and political order.


The event is in a hybrid format, you are welcome to join us for lunch from the Corner room at DIGSSCORE. Food is provided on a first-come first-served basis. Zoom link for digital attendance.