The Easiest Silverstein

Michael Silverstein is an important thinker whose work spans anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. I’m deeply indebted to him intellectually, and benefitted immensely from his service on my dissertation committee. But it is hard explain the appeal to non-Silversteinians. Partially this is because of his difficult writing style (which has improved over time, I should say) and the slightly suspicious over-enthusiasm his devotees have for his work. Also, let’s be honest: Silverstein’s goal is to take things that many people already understand and redescribed them in a technical language that almost no-one understands. This is not an unheard-of approach. It is what linguistics do to grammar, after all. But it’s not to everyone’s fancy.

So what is the easiest thing of Silverstein’s that you can give to people to help them understand what is going on with him? I think the answer is his 1977 article “Language as a Part of Culture” in the edited volume Horizons of Anthropology. I think because it is old and not often taught it may have slipped out of people’s view. Which is a shame.

Of course it’s been a long time since I was at Chicago so I may be out of touch with the Latest Phase but I think this article covers most of the themes of Silverstein, and it does it in 12 pages in relatively straightforward prose. Relatively being the key word here.

Silverstein has written a lot and his thought is complex and has evolved over time. So this is hardly the last or best summary of it. But I think it might be a good place for a lot of people trying to find a way in it… or convincing/explaining to their own students what their former teacher is going on about. If you have thoughts or refutations let me know on twitter. I’m @r3x0r .

If anthropology is a humanity, which humanity is it?

Anthropologists are notoriously unwilling to commit to being either a science or a humanity. Sometimes there are pragmatic reasons for this — even my most humanistic of colleagues would like the option to apply for NSF funding, even if their heart isn’t really in their bigger project. But this reticence also genuinely cuts right through the middle of our discipline, since anthropology came of age when the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘the humanities’ didn’t exist in its current hard-and-fast form. But there’s a related question we worry less which I think is more interesting: if we are a humanity, which humanity are we?

I believe there’s been a shift in anthropology away from seeing ourselves as students of things made by humans (the origins of the term ‘humanities’ — it’s the study of things not made by God) to being the creators ourselves.

For instance, back in the 1970s, anthropologists thought of themselves as literary critics. Doing anthropology, as Clifford Geertz famously said in (iirc) his essay on thick description, that anthropologists read texts over the shoulders of the ‘natives’. This ended up being a fruitful idea, because at the time literary criticism was developing a lot of very useful models of how meaning was made. Of course, as the decades when on it also became clear that models developed to understand text artifacts — books — didn’t get us as far as we thought when we started to study interaction. But that’s another story.

Equally, anthropologists have frequently wanted to be historians. Sometimes this was because we wanted historical answers to important questions: In the US ethnohistory got started partly out of attempts to document land claims of Native Americans. But there were also theoretical appeals to history as well. For Evans-Pritchard, for instance, history seemed to offer a model of rigor and particularism that was more interesting to imitate than physics or chemistry. Sahlins and other history of anthropology types in the 1980s saw that the Annales school offered concepts which could help anthropology develop answers to its questions about structure, agency, and social change. In the 1970s it became clear to us that the places we studied had a history, usually a pretty grim colonial history in which anthropologists were involved. Anthropology as history gave us a way to research that question, etc. etc.

Literature and history were the bigs ones, but there were others: Classics has always hanged heavily over our discipline. Often because many of the founders of our discipline studied the subject back in the day when most of what was taught at the University just was classics. Folklore has long been an allied discipline to anthropology — when it hasn’t just been anthropology. Eliade and Dumézil produced a humanistic study of religion that anthropologists have affiliated with at different times, and Mauss’s original job was in a ‘religious science’ centre which, by the standards of the contemporary US (where I teach), would be considered a humanistic. At some level, I think it just seemed natural for some of us to hang out with the epigraphers, even if we weren’t archaeologists.

Today, on the other hand, it is increasingly mainstream for anthropologists to see themselves as creative artists, not the people who study them. This is the anthropologist as novelist, not literary critic. I think here of Stuart McLean’s Fictionalizing Anthropology or his collection (edited with Anand Pandian) Crumpled Paper Boat, or Beth Povinelli’s work as part of the Karrabing film collective. Examples could be multiplied. My entry in Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon is sort of in this vein, although I’m not as good at it as Anand and others. Examples could be multiplied, but hopefully this gives you a sense of what I’m talking about.Now, a few caveats: of course, anthropologists — or at least some of them.. maybe not enough! — have always cared about writing clearly, elegantly, and beautifully. And anthropological fiction also has a genealogy in our discipline (see the 1922 volume American Indian Life). But often this impulse has been repressed. We now write Zora Neale Hurston back into anthropology’s genealogy, but she ultimately drifted away from the discipline because it didn’t give her the room to move that she wanted. Margaret Mead was widely viewed as a squish for writing Coming of Age in Samoa, at least by older Boasians like Kroeber and Lowie. Sapir and Benedict wrote poetry, but they didn’t think of it as anthropology, they though of it as poetry. One of anthropology’s great strength is its willingness to tolerate experimentation. But let’s not kid ourselves: often times that willingness has had limits.

I’m not super into the ‘literature’ turn in anthropology. I’ve always been more interested in the lively arts (and video games) than literature. Even today, most of what I read is nonfiction. But I think it’s an interesting development. A few years ago I was talking with a sociologist who had just read Behold The Black Caiman and asked me, in essence, “dude, what was that even about.” and I was like: “anthropological ethnography: /me inserts thumbs up emoji here”. I admire — and am envious of — the sociologists’ ability to produce accessible works like Evicted or Gang Leader for a Day. But I’m also very proud to be part of a discipline that never stops pushing boundaries. At the same time, I think there’s something very valuable about an anthropology that sees itself as adjacent to history or classics or history of religions, and I wouldn’t want to give that up either. In the end, I think the important thing is to keep an open mind — a move that requires us to remember less-used options as much as it means embracing our current trends.

Now I am 17

I started this blog seventeen years about today, and according to my usual habit I’m writing an annual blog post about its past, present, and future.

In May of this year (I think?) I took a social media sabbatical to focus on other things. There are complex reasons for this… mostly having to do with the fact that I had a a lot of other things to focus on. It has been a fantastic experience, and I recommend that everyone do it. It is amazing how much of social media doesn’t matter when you are committed to it not mattering, and how much deeper your knowledge of current events can be when you spend your time diving deeper.

In 2018 I left Anthrodendum, the reincarnation of Savage Minds, a blog I’d been working on for over a decade. This has also been fantastic. Instead of producing a thousand words a week for the blog I’ve produced thousands of words of articles, book manuscript, book review, and journal special issues. I’ve spent more time with my family. And I’ve had a chance to experiment with new forms like my history of anthropology timeline and my Tumblr, Highly Accurate Pictures of Anthropologists. I’ve also spent a lot of time on service, which has not been that much fun. But it has been a learning experience. And even if only a handful of people read the 10K+ words of peer review I’ve written in 2018, I am still a stronger writer and thinker for writing them. At least… I hope so!

My goal at this point is to use my personal blog as a personal blog, for whatever thoughts I may have. But I’d like them to be less important to people than SM or Anthrodendum, which some people take very seriously. I’d also like to shift from writing general interest pieces to pieces more focused on what I now describe as my interests: political anthropology, anthropology of the Pacific, history of anthropology, and Porgera. I’d like to have the freedom to write for more than one forum, instead of feeling that I constantly need to keep SM/anthrodendum updated. In general, I just want some room to manoeuvre, instead of being locked into a single configuration.

I’m also going to start following Twitter again, but I’d like to keep a lower profile there. I think Twitter is great for discovery, amplifying a message, and surfacing expertise. But I don’t think it’s a great platform for engagement, and while I enjoy the economy of cramming your thoughts into a byte (or two bytes) of text, it’s not really my speed. I also think a lot of people now feel that there are downsides with the speed of social media, and now after some years people are interested in longer, slower, engagements. It may be that the tempo of blogging is coming into fashion again. At this rate the blog will be out of fashion in 2025, and back in in 2032. At that point I will have been — god willing! — blogging for thirty one years!

I think a lot about Fernand Braudel’s image of history as an ocean: Braudel was not interested in the froth and turbulence on the surface, which he associated with great man, palace intrigue, military campaign history. He was interested in the deeper movements of the ocean, which in this analogy were the ‘structures of the long durée’: the geography and enduring cultural themes which were the base on top of which the historical wave was built.

I am not — and never really was — that interested in the froth on the top of the wave which is social media and twitter. I find it exhausting to keep up with. I recognise it’s important, and a lot of people with excellent taste love it, and I appreciate and respect their position. If y’all want to do that, go for it! But I’d like to run at a slower, more Braudellian tempo. Maybe no tthe longue durée, but more of a focus on the middle of the conversation. At least, that’s the plan.

Anyway, I have more to say, but maybe it is time to call it for this evening and move on to some of my other projects. Hopefully I will be writing more here in the future. And if anyone enjoys or benefits from reading it then maybe my eighteenth year of blogging will benefit more than just me.

Happy 2019!

My new encyclopedia article about Marshall Sahlins is now available… for very wealthy libraries

It took a while, but I have a short encyclopedia entry about Marshall Sahlins in Wiley’s International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. After a long period of being hostile to secondary sources in my youth, I now appreciate high-quality well-curated content (in my youth, there was no Internet, and being deluged in low-quality, random-ass information was not an option). That said, in general I am not a big fan of huge reference projects by for-profit publishers. The put content behind a huuuuge paywall, and the content is of uneven quality by people who are not always the top experts in their area. The days when Malinowski’s encyclopedia entry on culture was THE statement on culture are now long gone. Frankly, I wouldn’t have written for Wiley if it wasn’t for the fact that they asked me to write a piece on my dissertation supervisor. I wanted to make sure Marshall got a good write-up and I felt (perhaps over-optimistically) that I was a better option than others. So I did it. I hope it will be useful to someone someday. Hopefully I’ll get around soon to proving an open access equivalent.

This is part of a continuing series of publications about Marshall I’ve done, which include another encyclopedia article, a festschrift, and a bibliography.

My review of Brown’s new history of SOAS is up

My review of Ian Brown’s “The School of Oriental and Asian Studies” is now open access and available to read at the History of Anthropology Newsletter website. It is a good book, but I didn’t find it very useful for understanding the role that SOAS’s department has played in the history of anthropology… probably because the author did not write the book just for me. So no surprise there. That’s fair. At any rate, I think it is probably the most deeply researched and longest book on the SOAS written to date, or at least that I am aware of, so Brown should be congratulated on this book. If you are interested in a closely written and research administrative history of SOAS this is the book for you.

A Good Question Is More Important Than The Right Answer

I write answers on Quora, so I get emails from the site asking me to answer specific questions. At lot of the questions are valuable, but the way they are asked leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, its been a clinic for me in how not to write questions, and in realizing what an important skill asking good questions is, and understanding just how few people have had a chance to develop that skill.

A lot of times poor questions are good questions which have been poorly written. It takes a lot of skill as a writer to write a clear question so that someone can answer it! One big issue is assuming that people share your premises about a question. Probably my least favorite kind of question to answer is “Why didn’t X happen?” or “Why isn’t X a Y?”. Since I answer questions about Papua New Guinea I’ve gotten a few “Why doesn’t PNG become part of Indonesia?” or “Why don’t hunter gatherers settle down?” These are hard questions to answer because the asker has a whole theory in their head about how the world works, a theory which is challenged by what actually occurs in the world. Their question arises when the world and their theory of it is out of step.

Questions like these are hard to answer because you don’t know what the asker’s premise is, so you can’t explain to them where the fault in their logic lies. The shortest answer is really just “why would X?” Which is a way of saying: Why do you believe your presumption holds true, given the existence of disconfirming evidence? A better way to ask the question is “Given the many political and economic benefits of being part of Indonesia, why hasn’t PNG joined Indonesia instead of remaining its own country.” At least that way you can tell what presumptions are at work in the asker’s question.

I — and I think most teachers — are fond of saying that a good question is better than a correct answer. Being able to ask good questions enables growth, imagination, and learning. It builds community by creating dialogue. It also helps me answer your question on Quora! So my advice, if anyone should care to take it, is that you educate yourself about the world, don’t forget to educate your capacity to learn. Asking clear questions with explicit premises, hopefully in a positive (“why”) rather than a negative (“why not”) form is, to me at least, a very important skill.

The Lévi-Strauss Boas Death Story

Part of the oral tradition of anthropology is that Boas died in Lévi-Strauss’s arms when Lévi-Strauss was in New York, having fled the Nazi takeover of France. There are several versions of this story: that Boas died giving a speech on racial issues, or (my favorite) that Boas’s last words were “I have a new theory of race!” But where does this story really come from? While preparing a lecture on Boas I came across the answer — the journal Études/Inuit/StudiesThe English translation of the story goes like this:

“The incident I have just related [eating dinner at Boas’s home] took place a few weeks before he died. Since I witnessed this directly, perhaps the time has come for me to describe its circumstances which will remain engraved on my memory forever. Boas was host at a luncheon at the Columbia University Faculty Club in honour of Paul Rivet, then a refugee in Columbia, who was passing through New York on a mission for General de Gaulle. I was invited along with a few other people, including Mrs. Yampolski, Boas’ daughter, Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard and Ralph Linton. It was December 21, 1942. The city was in the grip of a bitter cold spell and Boas arrived from Grantwood wearing an astonishing faded fur hat that must have dated back to his travels among the Eskimos. The meal began gaily; you could tell that Boas was happy to see an old friend again and to be surrounded by former students, some of whom had followed in his footsteps. The conversation was going along at a good pace when suddenly, in mid-sentence, Boas jerked violently backwards, as under the effect of an electric shock, and fell over, taking his chair with him. I was sitting next to him and hurried to help him up, but he remained motionless. Rivet, who had been an army medical officer, tried in vain to revive him; he was only able to pronounce him dead. Boas’ son Ernst, a professor at Columbia, arrived a little later. Leaving Mrs. Yampolski and him to their sorrow, we withdrew in silence, grief-stricken at the loss of the greatest ethnologist of all time.”

I think I’ve read this story elsewhere — perhaps in View From Afar? — but since I ran into it here I thought I’d post it just to confirm that the story is in fact well grounded. Lévi-Strauss was never one to turn down the opportunity to seize the mantle of past giants. For instance, he was hardly a confidante of Marcel Mauss, but he did his best to paint himself as the true inheritor of Mauss’s brand of ethnology. This story subtly reinforces the sense that Lévi-Strauss walked among giants, and hence was one himself.


My review of Victoria Stead’s “Becoming Landowners” is on available open access

I’m happy to say that my review of Victoria Stead’s Becoming Landowners is on available, open access, on the Pacific Affairs website. The sum of the article is: Setting aside my personal fondness for Tori — who is one of the most intellectually alive people I know — I think I can say with impartiality that the book is very good. There were some drawbacks for me: I personally would have preferred that it focus just on PNG, just because I’m a PNG chauvinist. I also think some readers might miscrecognize Stead’s distinction between ‘custom’ and ‘modernity’ as romantic or exorcizing. But this is definitely not the case if you read the book carefully. The book has many more strengths than weaknesses, and I especially appreciated her willingness to point out how often Papua New Guineans get the short end of the stick when it comes to resource development and industry. There is a cynical strand in the PNG literature which she is fighting against — which I probably give in to too often! — and I am really glad that she keeps us honest in this account. Overall, it’s a good book and I hope UH publishes it in a less-expensive and more accessible form.

The Golub Horizon

I’m coining a new term: The Golub Horizon. It’s the amount you have to read in order to realize that the ideas in a book aren’t new. It’s not a measure of quality, just a measure of the erudition and historical consciousness, the amount of learning required of the reader to recognize the fact that one piece of writing is, at some level, old wine in new bottles or a reinvention of the wheel. For instance, Anna Tsing’s Friction is a fine book, but it also has a very low GH: Anyone who remembers historical anthropology of the 1980 and 90s will recognize the idea that ideas move unpredictably from context to context, or that working misunderstandings collaborate cross-cultural interaction. Mario Blaser’s 2009 “The Threat of Yrmo” also has a low GH, in that it just reminds us that different people see the world differently because of their culture, and this matters in political contests. It’s also an excellent article, I don’t mean to rubbish it by any means. I just think its message is something people need to hear in every generation… and have!

Gender of the Gift is very high GH. It’s a genre-defying masterpiece. At some level all books are ultimately a meditation on the human condition, since at some level the GH is inescapable. I think of Islands of History has high GH, but of course philosophers and poets have long mused on the fact that everything sort of changes but also sort of stays the same.

As a middle aged professor, I know many people (including myself!) who at time get angry or frustrated when low-GH work becomes popular. Why take Friction seriously when you could read Islands of History? What is the point of using the term ‘ontology’ if it literally just means ‘cosmology’? But we are wrong to experience the popularity of these works as a narcissistic wound. We need to get over ourselves. In fact, people are agreeing with our understanding of the world by embracing these works. If they use slightly different language to do so, then that shouldn’t really bother us. In fact, it means with just a few simple find and replace operations on our work, we can ensure our continuing relevance by submitting our ‘new’ pieces on the political ontology of global friction to journals again… for the very first time!

“The Jews of Hawai‘i” at the East-West Center

I am bad at publicising myself. On 15 July 2018 I gave at talk at the East West Center Art Gallery on the history of the Jewish community of Hawai‘i. There is a recording of it here. I want to correct one error in the talk: The first rabbi born in Hawai‘i, afaik, is Natan Margalit.  Eventually I’m going to turn this talk into a publication of some sort… in my Copious Free Time.

Edit: You can watch the talk on Vimeo (27 Aug 2018)