(While I have been active on Twitter posting links to memorials and obituaries of Marshall Sahlins, I have not written very much on my blog. In the next couple of months (or years) I am sure I will have more to say about him. However, I wanted to take the time to make public here the statement I’ve circulated over email. For more of my thoughts on Sahlins’s life and work, see the festschrift I edited in honor of him, A Practice of Anthropology.)
I owe Marshall a tremendous amount. The day he accepted me to work with him at Chicago my life’s path changed fundamentally. Every day I spend in Hawai‘i and every paycheck I receive as a tenured professor I owe, at least a little bit, to him.
Marshall was a great thinker, as many people on this list have mentioned. But he was also a role model. Unlike many superstars at Chicago he had a healthy and happy family life. Even his dogs were happy. As a result I never came of age — as many people do these days, judging from social media — believing that the price of academic success was a barren private life. If anything, the challenge was to find someone to share my life with as remarkable as Barbara!
He was also a person of absolute integrity who said what he meant and meant what he said. He met all of the deadlines I gave him for letters of recommendations, commenting on draft chapters, etc. He also insisted that I meet all of mine. He was not inflexible or inhumane in this, he just thought people should be committed to their commitments, or else not make them. I think this viewpoint drove a lot of his politics. He wanted people to do the right thing — something which is actually incredibly exhausting, but also a very good habit to learn and leads to a virtuous life.
Egalitarianism was another key traits of his personality. He treated everyone the same way, regardless of rank or position. It was a very Chicago (the city, not the university) way of being. I always found this pretty terrifying since he was a Famous and I was a not. But it ended up being valuable. He never told me I was not good enough, or that I would not be pushed to succeed because he had already decided I could not. If Marshall’s books could win awards, why not mine? And you know what, at the end of the day my first book _did_ win an award. It would not have if I had been taught to set my sights low.
Alan Rumsey has rightly pointed out that competition was important for Marshall. He was probably one of the few members of the national academy of science who regreted not being a college football star. His egalitarianism was, as we say in the business, ‘agonistic’. He loved what we call in Hebrew ‘machloket’ — disputation. Arguing with him was an intense, no-holds barred experience, but it never became personal and was always based on reason and evidence. You had to go for the jugular. One particularly important moment in my graduate education was watching his wife (a great bridge player) quietly, carefully, and relentlessly explain to him why he should have been bidding hearts. If you were right and he was wrong, his first move was to become extremely charming and change the subject. But if you kept at him he would admit he was wrong.
One reason his work was so good was that he did this to himself constantly. He had the ability to be self-critical without beating himself up emotionally. He also had a regular and healthy work habit. Both of these are key to academic success or, I would argue, any kind of success. If only we all had a Marshall in our heads to argue with the way he did, all of our work would be much stronger.
Given this, it’s no surprise that Marshall helped mentor an activist scholar like Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa or would support the tenure of Haunani-Kay Trask — nor is it surprising that these people would later have their disputes with him.
Much of the academic world has already forgotten many of Marshall’s intellectual contributions — his dissolution of the structure-agency binary seems not to have taken, for instance, outside of anyone who is not Webb Keane. But I think his greatest contribution which we must carry forward is the recognition that there is such a thing as healthy conflict. Certainly in the United States today too many people have forgotten how to disagree with each other and indeed, can only understand disagreement as pathological.
When I think of Marshall the impression I get is one of clarity: Clarity of thought, of action, and of ethics. To this day I walk through the world constantly noticing how many people believe arguments that are not true because they are emotionally comforting, or who use their power and privilege every day to opt out of integrity and responsibility in ways large and small. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had Marshall’s clarity and integrity.
Marshall and I were very different people. I couldn’t connect with him over sports and he had no interest in sacred choral music of the baroque and renaissance, which was my love in graduate school. But he took me seriously and I learned a lot from him. Probably one of my proudest moments came when I was sitting at his kitchen table, listening to his feedback on a dissertation chapter. In despair, I asked him whether he thought my dissertation was any good at all. His looked me right in the eye and told me that it was “better than ok.”
I’m excited to announce the my interview with Emilka Skrzypek is now available over at New Books Network. Emilka is a third- (or maybe fourth-?) generation scholar in the anthropology of mining in Papua New Guinea, and studies the Frieda River Mine, which doesn’t yet exist. How does one do an ethnography of a mine which hasn’t been built, but which is still making changes in the local communities which anticipate its coming? Or, rather, how do you a study of a mine which (as Paiyamo people might put it) exists in the sense that it is having an effect on people’s lives, but is still ‘invisible’ in that it hasn’t been built? Take a listen! As an anthropologist of mining of a slightly older generation *cough* it is great to see more work on this topic being produced.
I’m very proud to announce that my interview with Martha Macintyre is now available, open access, from ANU Press. It is a chapter in the wonderful new volume Unequal Lives: Gender, Race, and Class in the Western Pacific. The volume is a festschrift for Martha, who is a pathbreaking anthropologist who has crossed fields as diverse as feminist anthropology, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of mining. Over the years I’ve learned a lot from her perspective, which is always informed by history and has a keen eye on political economy.
In addition to substantive chapters, the volume has several wonderful personal reflections of Martha and her influence as a teacher. My chapter is a massive distillation of multiple hours of oral history across multiple days. The volume also features pictures of several anthropologists in their younger years if you are a Melanesianist looking for a ‘back to the past’ experience. Martha has been a mentor to many anthropologists, but has never taken it easy on people who deserved to get it hard. Her reminiscences of Derek Freeman paint a dark and, to my mind, accurate picture of his time at the ANU.
I’m so happy this volume came out and that I am a part of it. Go take a look today!
Jaimie’s anthropological work was conducted before her transition under the name James F. Weiner. She was an ethnographer of Papua New Guinea whose work bordered on the philosophical. I worked closely with Jaimie’s children to make sure I honored her wishes regarding how her two lives were reported (she had no issue with dead naming, for instance). I hope those of you who knew Jaimie or read her work will find this obituary honors her memory.
In addition to Fabiana and Eamon, thanks to Ira Bashkow, Colin Filer, Francesca Merlan, and Alan Rumsey for their support in writing it. Her memory is a blessing.
I’m happy to announce a new podcast episode over at New Books Network. In this episode I interview brother and sister teams Elizabeth and Stephen Ferry. Elizabeth is an anthropologist and Stephen is a photographer, and together they’ve produced La Battea, a book which combines text, images, and design to tell the story of small-scale miners in Colombia in a unique and powerful way. When I say ‘design’ I mean it: the book is physically designed to pull the reader into the topic. Cardboard covers, a specially-chosen paper, and carefully designed chosen fonts provide a unique experience which is topped off by the small piece of gold embedded in the cover.
In this episode of the podcast, I talk with Stephen and Elizabeth Ferry about the design, photography, and text of this book. They also talk about the Kickstarter they ran to create the book, and their decision to produce both Spanish and English language versions that were affordable for local communities. Other questions include: What is it like to write a book with your sibling? How elemental a human experience is mining? I think this is a good one so I hope you will check it out.
Aloha all. Some quick final links to keep up to date on what I’ve been doing since September. This site has gone on for far too long without an update, so I’ll post several in the next couple of days.
For this post, I want to highlight something new at the New Books Network — my very own author page! It’s not much but it does provide a single location where you can find all the interviews I’ve done. This is part of the redesign of the website and is just one of many more positive features which I’m told will come in the near future.
That’s all for now! More soon and happy end of 2020. I know I for one couldn’t be happier that this year of over and I’m looking forward to a much more prosperous and healthier 2021.
This is really special for me since I’ve been interested in Narokobi’s thought ever since I first encountered it. He is the kind of thinker who pulls you in. What’s more, I visited Narokobi’s village in the late 1990s when Lise was doing fieldwork there on his native language, Arapesh. I’m so proud to have published it in the JPH, which is such a classic journal and once which I have so often over the years — it’s not too much to say that one of my life goals has been met now that I’ve published there!
This collection is special because of how it deals with all aspects of Narokobi’s life. Jonathan Ritche and I cover the early part of his career. Vergil Narokobi, his son, discusses his legal thought. Philip Gibs discusses Narokobi’s Catholicism, and Ira Bashkow and Greg Bablis help contextualise Narokobi’s life by discussing the context he grew up in, as well as the legacy he left behind.
It was great to have two Papua New Guinean intellectuals involved in this project — and not just any intellectuals, but Arapesh thinkers (including Bernard’s son, Vergil) with kin ties to Narokobi. It’s a testament to Lise’s commitment to Wautogik, Narokobi’s village, that she came to the village decades ago as a linguist to record phonetic barred I and ended up producing this volume. I hope we inspire many other anthropologists and historians from the US to undertake this kind of work in the future.
I’m very happy to announce that I have a new interview up at New Books Network. This one is with Matt Tomlinson, an anthropologist of the Pacific at the University of Oslo. Matt’s book is a discussion of the role of the concept of ‘culture’ in contemporary Pacific protestant theology. I love the cover image of the book, which features the holy family around a kava bowl. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the Pacific Islands Monograph Series, which published this book. Second disclosure: We’re always looking for more manuscripts. If you have a really Pacific-focused manuscript let me know!
I announce my publications and interviews and things on social media but I have fallen behind on announcing them on my blog, which is supposed to be a more organised and permanent record of what I’m doing. So here is the first of a few posts about my (boreal) summer activities:
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 actuallyhad 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.