Remembering Michael Silverstein

Like many people, I was deeply, deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Michael Silverstein, a member of my dissertation committee. Although I knew he was ill, it is still so distressing to lose a giant in the field. Once, we spoke ‘Silversteinian’. With his passing, we now all just speak ‘semiotics’. As someone who was always Silverstein-entangled, but never truly a semiotics insider, I wanted to write a remembrance of him which extolled his virtues without mythologizing him. I hope this piece honors his memory.

I first met Michael Silverstein in Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s. I was an undergraduate at Reed College and he had come to give a talk. He had a long association with Reed, having known David French for years and having done field work at Warm Springs, the reservation which has a historic connection with the college. It was a big deal that he was there, since he was both a Big Time University of Chicago Luminary and a bit of a home town hero. He gave a talk of what would later become the essay “Whorfianism and the Linguistic Imagination of Nationality”. I did not understand much of it, but the gist appeared to be that Benjamin Whorf had said the things Benedict Anderson said, but he did it decades earlier, and that this fact somehow reflected poorly on Anderson. The lecture was very hard to understand and also seemed incredibly brilliant. But I was suspicious of my sense of its brilliance — how could I say it was brilliant if I didn’t understand it? This pattern of 80% awe and 20% skepticism would become a hallmark of my relationship with him.

After the talk there was a lunch for him at someone’s house. Over salad we started talking and he made a four way pun about croutons, cretins, Cretans, and crudité. This was back in when Reed was a feeder school for Chicago. In fact, all but one of the anthropology faculty at Reed had a Reed B.A. and a Chicago Ph.D.. Silverstein would later tell me that he had done fieldwork at Warm Springs at the same time as my Reed thesis advisor, Gail Kelly. The close connection of our two departments was considered a form of intellectual in-breeding by some, while others thought it the only way to keep one’s academic blood blue. Before the web or social media, it seemed less exclusionary and privileged than it does now. The day we met I don’t think I had consciously thought about going to grad school at Chicago, but it may have been percolating in my subconscious. He, on the other hand, was probably very aware that he was reviewing possible recruits.

I did go on to Chicago, and Silverstein did serve on my committee. I mentally called him MSLV (after his email address), while he referred to me as ‘Mr.G’ because my last name was ‘Golub’ and the grocery store in the neighborhood at that time was called Mr.G’s. He was tall and fit, with an aquiline nose and a penchant for cool earth tones: He wore a jacket and tie which were, as he might have put it, ‘appropriate to context’.

What made Silverstein so impressive was not his appearance, but his voice. It was irresistibly imitateable. Like the lyrics to Hamilton, once you heard it you couldn’t help but try a few verses yourself. Just ask around — everyone has a Silverstein impression. His voice was sibilant, almost slightly hoarse, and he spoke like a waterfall interrupted. Streams of words poured from him, interrupted by stutters and filler words designed to give him time to produce a turn of talk that would be perfectly-formed in the transcript of the conversation which he was writing in his head.

And what words! Silverstein’s verbal performances were justifiably legendary. Although future memorializers will note the influence of Jakobsen, Peirce, or Bakhtin on his thought, in reality Silverstein constructed a brand-new language which was uniquely his own: Metapragmatically. By-degrees-conscious. Calibrated. Regimented. Reticulated. Text artifact. Mensuration. Iconical Index. Trajectory of interdiscursively mediated taxonomies of -onomic knowledge. In fact, it was not merely a language. It was a way of seeing the world.

Silverstein was famous for arguing that the purpose of language was not to describe the world, but to create the shared meanings which people relied on when they spent time with each other. He saw the world as an endless game of improv in which speakers worked together to figure out what the scene was about and what their roles in it were. In particular, he was interested in the way that people’s own senses of what the rules of the game were shaped the game itself. Sometimes people had an intuitive sense of what was appropriate, at other times they received explicit instructions in how to behave. He was interested in all of these different levels of awareness of what life’s rules were, and he endeavored to show how each little moment of human interaction was shaped by the histories and institutions that shaped the people who lived out the small dramas he studied. How did going to elementary school shape your sense of what was the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of speaking? How did those lessons effect you thirty years later when you decide not to hire a black person because they ‘didn’t speak right’? By starting with the smallest, second-by-second analysis of conversation and building outward, Silverstein sought to build an entire theory of social life and meaning.

Silverstein was pegged at an early age as a genius, and his oracular pronouncements on discursively-mediated interaction were, like those of the original Greek oracles, often interpretable only by cultic initiates. And it is undeniable that Silverstein had his followers. Like most intensely charismatic teachers, he was both intimately, almost vulnerably available in the way in which he presented in opinions and worldview, but also emotionally distant in a way that left students wanting more.

It seems strange to call Silverstein ‘vulnerable,’ but he was intimately forthcoming his opinions and memories. For instance, once he told us a story that began with an admission of imperfection — not something all professors are willing to make! “I am terrible at Homeric Greek” he told us. His final in Homeric Greek at Harvard consisted of translating portions of a book of the Iliad into English. With little time to study and no aptitude in Homeric Greek, Silverstein decided just to memorize the entire book in English. He laughs heartily as he recounts how his exam consisted of perfect translations, followed by long blank spaces where he forgot the text, followed by more perfect translation. What must his teacher have made of that?!

By ’emotionally distant’ I mean that, at the end of the day, anthropology was a day job for Silverstein. He was happily married, had children, hobbies, and a private life. Unlike some charismatic teachers he was not emotionally needy or monomaniacally focused on his career. We were not his children and he didn’t need us to love him. In this way, he was intensely emotionally healthy. This, of course, led to intense speculation about his personal life. At one point one of my friends earned the rare privilege of going to Silverstein’s home to collect a signature or borrow a book, an honor I never received. “What was it like?!?” I asked, my imagination running wild. “He was wearing jeans!” My friend exclaimed in wonder.

While Silverstein had a personal life, no one could fault him for working too little. He was a true intellectual who lived the life of the mind to its fullest and had an inexhaustible capacity for work. He unstintingly modeled the values of intensity, dedication, and commitment which he invited us to adopt. It was not unusual for him to stay at school until seven or eight at night to attend seminars or talks. If he did it, why couldn’t we? When other advisors, overloaded with students, hastily scanned your dissertation chapter and provided vague advice, Silverstein read your work carefully and provided detailed feedback. At one point during a departmental hire (I think when we were hiring Trouillot) he kvetched to us students that “academics are the biggest frauds in the world. They look at nothing, even though massive files have been compiled.” It was a typical glimpse behind the curtain which we so longed for but rarely got to see.

This is why, despite his strong opinions and devoted students, Silverstein never seemed to me conceited or egomaniacal. He had, if I may say so, a very Jewish approach to the world: Life was with people. You spent it building community. You inherited it from your teachers and you passed it on to your students. Of course, he was no pollyanna — he could be brutally effective in the cut and thrust of academic politics. Once he mentioned in passing “you are only as big in your department as you are outside your department.” I never forgot those words, and they helped me understand how to turn my well-known blog into a tenure-track position. I believe — I hope a future biographer will track this down — small pots of money to keep the conferences and edited volumes and journals ticking over.

But still, Silverstein never claimed to be a solitary genius with unique insights. The goal was to learn from colleagues at all levels, just as they learned from him. He didn’t demand adherence to doctrine or idiom, even though he definitely had both of these. You could be a true insider, a fellow-traveler, or peripherally attached as long as your work was good. And he didn’t feel the need to steal the spotlight or claim precedence — although, to be fair, this may be because both of these things came easily to him. He was a macher, not a prophet or entrepreneur.

While it is true that Silverstein had a broad church, it still had entrances and exits. He could be scathing in his disdain for other thinkers. When I took his legendary Language and Culture course in the late 1990s, he was still giving lectures on why David Schneider was wrong — despite the fact that Schneider had retired from Chicago a decade before! Much of contemporary anthropology, he thought, was driven by fads or the re-discovery of things which others (such as himself) had discovered long ago. How could anyone think Derrida was important for pointing out that signification was always an unfinished process when this fact was both obvious and elementary. How could anyone take James Scott’s notion of “hidden transcripts” seriously? With his view from 30,000 feet in the theoretical stratosphere, Silverstein saw much of 90s theoretical faddism as a wearying waste of time.

And, to be fair, the feeling was often mutual. Many found his work impenetrable and needlessly obscurantist, designed more to impress graduate students than to communicate with colleagues. It is fair to submit the Silversteinian project to scrutiny. A linguist, Silverstein took things that people intuitively understood and then redescribed them in a language that almost nobody could understand. This, for him, was progress. Even in his later work, when he made a genuine and successful effort to communicate more clearly, one still gets the feeling that his central insights could easily be had by other methods — for instance, by just listening to his ‘informants’. One of his most famous lectures, for instance, was a massive technical analysis of communion which explained how it worked. But did we really need an account of ‘figurational deictic transposition’ and ‘chiastic dynamic figuration’ when this beautiful, powerful ritual’s meaning is obvious to everyone who witnesses it? At a university where David Axelrod runs an Institute of Politics, do we need Silverstein explaining to us how political cartoons work or the politics of messaging?

Yes, we did. I truly learned from Silverstein the value of theory. When I struggled to explain the vague intuitions I had about the dynamics of my field site, he could describe it in a single sentence. My dissertation topic was not a unique and impossible to understand conundrum, it was a ‘token of a type’, an instance of a more general phenomenon which could be precisely described and which had parallels elsewhere. More than anyone else, Silverstein convinced me that there is value in generalizing theory because it helps us understand the world better. At a time when many American anthropologists consider ‘theory’ to be insufficiently apolitical, I still believe that generalized models of sociocultural process are an important and worthwhile topic, even if my own work rarely engages with them.

Silverstein’s certainty about what his project was and how it worked was often a relief to me. At one point in my own metatraumatic questioning of the state of the discipline, I asked him: “So just what is this difference between the humanities and the social sciences?” He responded instantly: “Social science is the scientific study of things normally studied by the humanities.” He was too aware of the complexities of social life to argue that science was ‘objective’ or some unique form of knowledge. He also didn’t argue that it was valid because it was useful. He believed in ‘basic science’. Many of his student have shown how it can be put to the service of social justice or liberatory agendas — something he respected and encouraged. But he justified science as an end and not a means. Today anthropology is sometimes described as the infinitely capacious multidisciplinary study of everything — both everything and also, in its openness, nothing. It’s a capacious vision, but not one that is very satisfying to students in an intro class, who have not paid good money to study a discipline with no identity or content. Silverstein’s vision of the discipline which was orienting, useful, delimited, but not constraining, and I use it today.

And yes, Silverstein’s own tendencies were taxonomic, abstract, formalistic, and highly aesthetic. He could take transcripts of conversations and turn them into massive diagrams. Having come to anthropology from drama, I was interested in the emotional and qualitative weight of interaction. Didn’t Silverstein’s diagrammatic tendencies drain all the life out of life? Did he, perhaps, suffer from the same thing that Lévi-Strauss suffered in Mythologiques: sufficient intellectual brilliance to find as many correspondences as you wanted regardless of what text you were actually examining?

There is truth to this claim as well, but I think people who read Silverstein’s work may not understand the joie de vivre behind his scholarship. When I imagine Silverstein, he always has a smile on his face. He could be technical and obscure, but he was also vital and alive. His laugh could fill a room. He studied language because he loved playing with it — hence the four-way pun he made the first time I met him. His focus on life’s rules also gave him a keen sense of the beautiful wonder of absurdity and the out-of-place. He told us, for instance, that his childhood teachers followed Classical Latin pedagogy in grammar, and made him decline nouns by case — despite the fact that English does not have case. I can still hear him laugh as he described his childhood exercises which were enlivened only by the vocative: “boy, boy, boy, boy, boy, oh boy!”

Silverstein not only loved to laugh, he loved to eat and drink as well. He developed his connoisseurship of food and wine with the same intensity of focus that he brought to the study of Worora verb classifiers. Which is to say: a lot. He could be picky about food — “this doesn’t taste like anything.” I imagine him say of the generic cheese served at a conference. But he was also not effete or snobbish. He took a down-to-earth pleasure in physical act of eating. I remember one meal — after a job talk? Or for a visiting scholar? — where we were taken to a restaurant that actually had a guy wandering around playing the violin. It was candlelit. The reason for coming was the gnocchi. Of course, the owner knew him and greeted him when we entered. His mixture of sophistication and simplicity was very Chicago (the city, not the university). It was also, if I may say so, a very Jewish way to enjoy food.

The biggest WASP influence on him in this regard was the martini. I remember one raucous hotel room party at the AAA annual meetings. Silverstein walked in the door with a jar of caper berries. It had been quite difficult for him to find the caper berries, but it was worth it because they were an essential ingredient of martinis. He locked himself in the bathroom, where all the alcohol was cooling in an ice bath in the tub. People demanded that he come out so that they could get more booze, but Silverstein was only willing to crack the door open enough for him to pass them martinis, which he had begin making a full speed. He intended to supply the entire party with them. Why drink anything else? My memory of that night is of a disembodied arm repeatedly holding out a dry martini garnished with caper berries and Silverstein’s muffled voice asking “Martini?” At some point someone asked “What even is a caper berry?” And we heard his semantically precise but somewhat martini-wobbled voice announce triumphantly “The unripened fruit of the caper bush!” as his arm emerged once again from behind the door. “Martini?”

Let me end this remembrance with one last story:

One day, I am walking up Haskell Hall’s monumental staircase wondering how well I did on the German test I had just taken. Silverstein is walking down the stairs and we meet. Knowing him to be multilingual I stop him and ask “What is German for ‘wet’?” He pauses for a moment, visibly searching his memory, and then replies “nass.” “Ah, ok,” I say. He looks at me strangely and asks “why do you want to know?” I realize suddenly how strange and perhaps disrespectful it must appear to stop a member of one’s committee in the middle of a stairway to test their linguistic knowledge. “I just got out of a German exam” I explain. “Oh. I see.” He said, and kept walking down the stairs. I realized then that I felt I could have asked him a similar question about Sanskrit, Arapaho, or Guugu Yimidhirr. He seemed to know everything.

It’s a cliche that great teachers live on in their students and the institutions they supported, but in Silverstein’s case this is uniquely true. A genuine original, he was inimitable. Reproduction is not an option, only transformation. And the true mark of his influence is how successful his students have been and will be in taking his vision and making it their own own. I count myself lucky to have been one of them. Vale.