Hieros, Hierophania, Hieroglossia: Visions, Voices, Signs, Signification

deadline for submissions: 
May 1, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Université de Reims (France)


The organisers of the HHH-2023 conference invite paper proposals from their colleagues in the Human Sciences who can elucidate the hermeneutical and semiotic principles which were operative in the ideas that peoples in earlier times and in non-Western cultures entertained about the languages they spoke. We are particularly interested in proposals which investigate the belief that, in one guise or another, language is “a gift from the Gods to men”. What does this mean? Why was such a conceit taken seriously? What counted as “the Sacred”? What hermeneutic and semiotic ingenuity was utilised to interpret what it betokened and in forging these interpretations into signs, significance and language? The interest of seeking answers to these questions isn’t limited to everything that is fascinating about these enigmas all unto themselves. It also creates an opportunity to gain as yet unsuspected insights into the meaning-affording potential of words and language. More than that, it offers us a framework and a perspective from which to identify and typify the limits and shortcoming of currently dominant ideas pertaining to the nature, vocation, applications and “apophantic” powers of language.

Conference theme and objectives

Ancient Egypt, Vedic India, China of the Shang dynasty, the Hellenes at the time of Homer, the Celts, the Aztecs and cultures the world over all believed that the language they spoke was masterminded and forged for them by some higher-than-mortal agency. Just how starkly this contrasts with “language science” in our religiously post‑religious modern age needs no explanation. For us it is simply absurd to maintain that language is anything but a tool devised by homo symbolicus to be able to interact purposively and productively with others of his kind. And yet this view is problematic.

First because the “roots” of all the languages we use to discredit ancient lores about “glottogony” are themselves the products of precisely the kind of mythologies we wish to exorcise from any discussion about language. Second, the assumption that there is something “backward” or “superstitious” about these “exotic” examples of speculation pertaining to the origin of language is now, quite understandably, considered to be the scholarly corollary of a “colonialist” attitude towards “la mentalité primitive”. Third, many authoritative voices in cutting edge, game-changing thought in literary theory and semiotics regularly appeal to “supra‑rational” agencies and actants to supply their theorisation with what cannot be supplied by being “rational” about where language comes from, the nature of its signifying powers, and quite simply what it is. Finally, by thoughtlessly assuming that such myths are merely figments of an “unenlightened” mentality, we overlook the possibility that these “irrational” theories may rest upon rationales that a patient analysis of why they were adhered to would demonstrate to be credible in terms of the very criteria used to postulate their worthlessness.

Perplexed by all this, the organisers of the 2023 colloquium are looking for contributions from colleagues who can elucidate for their peers why so many communities believed that it made perfect sense to maintain that their speech was a “gift of the Gods to mortals”. Why was such a conceit taken seriously? What “divinatory techniques” were involved in apprehending what counted as the Sacred? What hermeneutic and semiotic ingenuity was utilised to interpret what it betokened and in forging these interpretations into signs, significance and language? What rationale is at work in the assumption one encounters so often that, in some sense or another, the Divine itself is a living, breathing, pulsatingly resonant property of language and that its constituent words encode, mediate and reveal something “sublime” about their denotata?

The point of raising these questions is not to celebrate or rehabilitate ‘traditional’ belief systems. Nor is it to be a recrimination of views on the nature, vocation and finality of words and language which repudiate the idea that anything mystical or supernatural should be involved in the analysis. What we really want is to enrich and vary the habitual acceptations and applications of linguistics, semiotics and the philosophy of language by exploring what could be significant or worthwhile about theories maintaining that language is an emanationist bye‑product of other-than-mortal agencies, for instance of Gaia or of one of her counterparts.

Obviously, the views of Indologists, Orientalists, Arabists and Indigenous Studies specialists on these points would be greatly appreciated. Idem for colleagues hailing from Ethnolinguistics, Ecosemiotics, Literary Theory, Comparative Poetics, Philology and sundry kindred fields.
But that isn’t all. We also want to learn more about the way obsolete doxas about the divine origins of speech can be repurposed and undergo a rebirth in forms and in places one would least expect to find them. This would be particularly the case as concerns the theories of ostensibly ‘atheist’ avant-garde thinkers like Blanchot, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan as well as of pioneering artists like Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Artaud, Ponge, Joyce, Eliot, etc.

Suggested Topics

We invite papers on topics that may include (but are not limited to):

- Original research of a critical, comparativist or historical nature on Glottogonic theories, mythologies, folklores, traditions,

- Studies which illuminate (a) the divinatory techniques involved in apprehending what counted as the Sacred, (b) the forms in which its effulgence manifested itself (c) the hermeneutic ingenuity utilised in interpreting what it was believed to mean and (d) the semiotic engineering mobilised to forge this meaning into signs, significance and language,

- Critical assessments of the semiotic rationales that are operative in the conceit that language can encode, mediate and be “oversignified” by a higher order, “hieratic” content, significance or meaning,

- Contributions from specialists in Ecosemiotics and Ethnolinguistics which elucidate how “animist” cultures assumed that the natural environment had a voice and a language and how the meaning it communicated was translated into human speech,

- Reflexions on the way that the properties of signs that are presumed to be “hieroglossic” differ from those that are deemed to be “demotic” or “profane”,

- Papers on “the Language of the Gods” vs. “the Language of Mortals”

- Insights into the dynamics of the dialogue which ensues when heterogeneous conceptions of the “Sacred” origin and character of speech encounter one another,

- Analyses of what happens to an established model of Sacred speech when it faces challenges to its authority in the name of “reason” or “science” or when facing pressure from societal, cultural, cultural or political changes,

- The challenges and/or opportunities posed to literary artists when they are required to recognise, respect and celebrate the presumed Sacred character of their language while using it creatively,

- The “deterritorialisation” of tradition-hallowed ideas on the Sacred origins and character of language and its “reterritorialisation” in the thought of contemporary literary theorists and in the works of avant-gardist literary artists.

This list is only indicative. Anyone can approach the topic as they wish, provided that the subject matter dealt with, and the conclusions drawn from the analyses carried out provide fresh, evidence-based insights that are recognisably relevant to the conference theme.

Details about the Conference Organisers and other useful Information

The conference is organised by Fionn Bennett (Cirlep) and Karin Ueltschi (Crimel) and will take place at the Université de Reims (France) on the 14th and 15th of September 2023.

Please submit a proposal by the 1st of May 2023in English or French (up to 250 words), as well as a short bio-bibliography, to hieroglossia@univ-reims.fr. In the aftermath of the conference, a selection of peer reviewed papers will be included in a volume for publication. Feel free to contact us if any questions should arise before submitting your proposal. For additional information, go to our temporary website at: https://hieroglossia2023.blogspot.com/.