Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Alexander Bauer

Committee Members

Thomas McGovern

Gary Wilder

Þóra Pétursdóttir

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Archaeological Anthropology | Environmental Studies


Temperature, Capitalism, Semiotics, Measurement, Quantification, Thermodynamics, Contemporary Archaeology


Temperature was invented in the 17th century. While cosmologists affirm that fluctuations in heat are as old as the universe, the intensive quantified scale marking these fluctuations has a relatively short history. This dissertation analyzes why temperature developed when it did and what temperature does for and to its users. I demonstrate that the ubiquitous and quotidian epistemological artifact temperature epitomizes capitalized methods of seeing, measuring, and knowing. At its broadest, the concern of this dissertation is the material culture of knowledge production among capitalizing populations—those that believe in and practice the perpetually accelerating asymmetrical growth of wealth.

In this effort I examine temperature’s history, construction, social and scientific roles, distribution, politics, and economics. In focusing on the material culture of temperatures, this dissertation situates itself most immediately in the field of contemporary archaeology, drawing on the theoretical and methodological tools of this sub-discipline. In addition to archival research and interviews, I utilize theoretical insights from linguistics, science & technology studies, and queer theory to uncoil the material culture of temperature.

The dissertation analyzes the socio-material construction of twenty-eight temperatures, tracing the physical process of eliciting meaning from the average kinetic energy of particles (today's definition of temperature) and the resulting semiotic event this produces. The results reveal that temperatures were not invented simply to ascertain sensible warmth. Rather, temperature developed alongside a burgeoning capitalized epistemology that places value in the amorality of numbers and the ability to mathematize futurity through models, projections, and probability. By investigating the normalization and naturalization of temperatures, this dissertation problematizes the inner workings of capitalized epistemology.

I employ a novel method of semiotic stratigraphy based on Charles Peirce's semiosis framework. The aim of semiotic stratigraphy is not to discern what things mean, but how things mean—how significance is materially produced. In this pursuit, I trace the semiotic transformations necessary for the motion of particles (the behavior to which a temperature’s scientific definition refers) to become materially numerated (such as on a billboard that flashes the temperature). Semiotic stratigraphy illuminates the lattice of relationships that unifies the meaning and the matter of a society’s signs.