Towards a Material-Semiotic Approach to Sustainability Communication: Matter and Meaning in Sustainable Tourism

Project: ResearchIndividual research project

Research areas and keywords


  • Sustainability, New Materialism, Tourism, Venice, Strategic Communication, Posthumanist Discursive Practices, Naturecultures, Urban Destinations, Urban Planning, Climate Change


'Acqua alta' describes the phenomenon of high tide which commonly submerges part of city of Venice during the winter season. In recent years, due to climate change, exceptional high tide levels have been registered, posing considerate challenges to the city’s survival. In an attempt to prevent Venice from being submerged, a majestic engineering structure of mobile barriers at the lagoon’s inlets has been implemented (MoSE). Exceptional high tides, however, more than mere natural events in need of ordering through technological interventions, are complex and unpredictable phenomena strongly related to the way humans make sense of them through communication (Kelman 2021; Porzionato 2021). In other words, humans’ discursive capacities affect the material phenomenon of acqua alta through the strategies aimed at resisting it. As a result, natural phenomena cannot be said to be either totally “natural” and separate from humans’ discourse and practices, nor they can be said to completely depend upon them. In both cases, in fact, humans’ interventions towards natural phenomena would be supported by an idea of humans as both in need of strong separation from a dangerous environment, as well as an idea of humans as the only masters acting to prevent increasingly threatening climatic changes. Instead, how to understand 'acqua alta' as an event existing in the intra-action of nature and discourse (Barad 2007), thus considering humans and water as two elements unavoidably intertwined? How would this mindset translate into interventions promoting the coexistence of water and land rather than their hard separation?
In accordance to these questions, this project investigates the blurred boundaries existing between human semiotic capacities and the agency of the Earth’s natural elements. In particular, it looks at how sustainability discourses and practices aimed at understanding and resisting 'acqua alta' both affect and are themselves affected by the material relating of human bodies with the bodies of water (Niemanis 2017) flowing into the city of Venice. As such, it considers episodes of high tide as assemblages of humans and non-humans, happening, that is, thanks to the cooperation of multiple agentic bodies and forces, none of which, alone, has the ability to determine and predict the unfolding of events.
Effective start/end date2019/10/232024/05/01


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