SEM: Materializing Signs in Rhythm, Gravity, and Figures (Deadline Dec. 20, 2009)

full name / name of organization: 
Jason Groves / Yale Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures
contact email:

Call for Papers:

SEM: Materializing Signs in Rhythm, Gravity, and Figures
The 21st Annual Graduate Student Conference
in Germanic Languages and Literatures
at Yale University
February 26-27, 2010

In 1997, Thomas Schestag posed the question, “In welcher Sprache kommt Sem zur Sprache,” only to answer, “in keiner” – and then, “in allen.” As Schestag says, sem is all about coming. While sem comes, in language, in a variety of forms—seeds, semen, seminars, seminaries, dissemination, semiotics,—we are here also interested in seminal work where sem—as sense, meaning, significance—is still coming.

In particular this conference proposes to re-turn to the materiality of signs. In an early materialization, Homer’s Achilles points to (sêmainei) the gravestone (sêma) of an anonymous person, thereby making this stone the turning point (sêma) of the chariot race in Patroclus’ funeral games. In a sense, this stone will be the turning point of our reflections. Can we read an alternative genealogy of the sign proceeding from stones, grave or otherwise?

Sêma is always double, rhythmic, turning – involved in death and life. But if the “sema” as tombstone seems to be precisely the one point of reference around which the race revolves, the race itself produces another “sema” that makes Patroklos, who died for Achilles, and his fame, into a figure of Achilles himself, thereby fulfilling the claim of the Iliad to immortalize his fame. In this context, sem prefigures and questions several concepts of figurality, such as the rhetorical figure (tropos, turning), Christian typological reading strategies and the figure of rhythm.

In the chariot races, the turning point is also not to be touched – lest the chariots crash. Hence, the gravitational center also threatens stability by becoming a stumbling stone. In this way the sign materializes both as the cornerstone of signification and a stumbling block of sense. In a wider sense these stones in-volve figures of con-version – of verse, of faith; signs of death and the body (sôma), the grave (sêma) – even the antigrav (Kleist).

Hence, the conference inverts Thomas Schestag’s question of how Sem “zur Sprache kommt,” in order to pursue how language “zum Sem kommt”.

Possible impulses/impediments include:

- geopoetics in Goethe, Hölderlin, Droste-Hülshoff, Mörike, Stifter, and Celan
- Christian Bök's Crystallography
- the "stone" as "corner-stone" and "stumbling-stone" (Petr 2, 4 – 8): stability and destabilization of christian figural thinking in martyr-plays and sermons of the German baroque; the literality of the "figure" in every "imitatio christi"
- the role of the "figure" in poetry (e.g. Celan's "Mandorla")
- the "figure" of the "fall" in Kleist
- the poetics of gravity (e.g. Rilke's "Schwerkraft")
- the rhythmic semantics of Klopstock, Voß, and Moritz’s poetry, translations, and poetics;
- the emergence of meter as metaphor for tragic temporality in Hölderlin’s Sophokles-Anmerkungen and poems, where the turning point is no stone, but a cut;
- the sense that the sensuality of rhythm produces in texts as wide-ranging as Nietzsche’s prose and Brecht’s poems

We are pleased to welcome Thomas Schestag as our keynote speaker.

Please send an abstract no longer than one page (in English or German) to
Deadline for submission: December 20, 2009

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