After quite some time — and without a chance for me to review the final edits (!) — History of Anthropology Review has published my review of David Varel’s The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought. I thought that the book was well-written and well-researched, but what I really appreciated about it was the way it bought Allison Davis back into my life — an extraordinary scholar whose Deep South I now teach regularly in my History of Anthropology course at both the undergraduate and graduate level. I also interviewed Varel about his book on The New Books Network anthropology channel . And now, The University of Chicago is planning a conference and distinguished lecture series in Davis’s name. It’s great to see Davis getting the recognition that he deserves.
Someone in one of the my email lists was asking about the history of semiotics in anthropology, and that made me realise that I didn’t know very much about the subject, so I spent some time googling it. I got particularly interested in Milton Singer, who is interesting to me because he was hugely influential at Chicago, but afaik is basically forgotten today in my field.
A quick google seemed to confirm much of what I already suspected about semiotics: After Worlds War II many people were interested in abstraction and communication — concepts like ‘cybernetics’ and ‘information’ were in the air. As the more humanistically-inclined dug for sources they saw Saussure and Peirce as dual sources for what we now call ‘semiotics’.
In the US Thomas Sebeok was the academic entrepreneur who worked to create semiotics as a new and embracing discipline. In fact, one obituary called him the “pioneer, pathfinder, mentor, midwife, pied piper, kind Midas, gold standard, magician, troubadour, trickster,” and “friend” of semiotics. A more staid LA Time Obituary has further details and no pay wall. Linguistics as a discipline was clearly key here.
According to a short history the first major conference on semiotics was in 1966, around the same time the journal Semiotica was founded. Sebeok was involved in this and a ton of other series, often published by De Gruyter Mouton. It was a highly international affair (as many of those things were in those well-funded days) with American (and Canadian) institutional supports in people like Sebeok, as well as many European anchors. Greimas’s name appears in this literature frequently, for instance. There was also a strong Eastern European influence as well.
To me, ‘semiotics’ in anthropology means ‘Chicago anthropology, especially the work of Michael Silverstein’. Silverstein however, is just part of a larger movement. Today, this approach is well-established in other powerful departments — there is for instance Webb Keane at Michigan and Asif Agha and Benjamin Lee at Penn, Paul Kockelman at Yale, Nicholas Harkness at Harvard, and many others. So by now this tendency in anthropology has the potential to be institutionalised in most of the major departments of anthropology in North America, and seems to me to be a North American phenomenon — I can’t think of many Oxbridge types who think of themselves as doing ‘semiotics’ in this sense. Silverstein was hired by Chicago in 1971. His ground-breaking “shifters” paper was published in 1974.
But Silverstein was not the only person to discuss semiotics at Chicago. Milton Singer (useful obit here) did a philosophy degree at Chicago with Carnap in 1940 and ended up turning into a South Asianist and major force behind Chicago’s Centre for South Asian Studies, often working with Robert Redfield on projects driven by large external grants (here’s another Chicago-based obit). I am guessing war service sent him in that direction? I am sure if I read some of the sources I googled it would all be clear to me.
At any rate, in the late 1970s Singer returned to an interest in earlier questions of meaning, beginning (afaik) with the paper “For a semiotic anthropology” in Sebeok’s edited volume Sight, Sound, and Sense. Other way marks here are his 1984 Man’s Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology and 1991’s Semiotics of Cities, Selves and Cultures. While some authors have revisited this work on the whole I at least haven’t heard much about it. I do wonder about his relationship with Silverstein — the two authors were at different ends of their careers.
As a grad student in the 1990s I was assigned works such as Semiotic Mediation (1985) and Signs in Society (1994) (and the earlier papers in it) as examples of the tradition. The 2013 creation of the journal Signs in Society seems important to me as a sign of the continued vitality of this tendency. When Paul Manning joined the editorial board of Language and Communication in 2004 I feel like I started seeing several semiotic-style special issues appearing there.
There is more to say about all this, but I wrote this mostly to dump all my open browser tabs into my (outboard) brain, so I’ll stop here for now and let this cursory sketch stay cursory.
My new episode of New Books in Anthropology is up — it’s an interview with Christina Thompson on her book The Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. It’s a history of European attempts to understand the prehistory of Polynesian and Austronesian migration. It’s a very well written and well-structured story that starts with the Spanish discovery of the Marquesas, goes through Kon Tiki and Hokule‘a, and ends with contemporary work. I was impressed by the amount of work that it covers, and how easily it goes down, and it was blurbed by Pat Kirch at Matt Matsuda so you know most of the details were right. I think this will be a go-to book for people who want to get started understanding the prehistory of the Pacific.
At the same time, I can imagine that some of my colleagues would take fault with the decision to write a book about white people studying the Pacific rather than just focusing on Pacific Islanders themselves. Christina has defended this choice — which I feel is a legitimate one — and notes that she covers people such as Nainoa Thompson and Te Rangi Hiroa. But I still felt this book read very much as a story of a Western project of knowing into which Pacific Islanders were eventually incorporated. I don’t know — maybe this reflects my own concern about how we conceptualise and tell anthropology’s history. Another shortcoming is the inevitable ‘what got left out’ question: While historical linguistics is mentioned, that story doesn’t get told in the detail it could. But of course it’s inevitable that a book tells some stories and not all others (at least, this is a problem all non-infinitely long books have).
My favourite aspect of this book is that it turned me on to the work of the wonderfully-named Willowdean Chatterson Handy. Christina’s section on her inspired me to read Handy’s Forever The Land Of Men, her memoir of doing fieldwork in the Marquesas in the 1920s alongside her husband and Ralph Linton. It is a hidden gem of a book and if you can find a copy I’d highly recommend it. I was particularly interested to see how thoughtful Handy was about the impact of colonialism in the Marquesas and her own positionally as a researcher. Inspired, I asked a friend of mine who studies the Marquesas what he thought of Willowdean.
“She was smarter than [her husband] Handy,” he said to me.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Everything the co-wrote is better than his solo publications!” He replied.
In sum, I recommend Christina’s book very warmly although I recognise it might not be framed in a way that will please everyone. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation!
Today most anthropologists remember Edward Westermarck as one of Malinowski’s two main teachers at the London School of Economics. In fact, I think Malinowski owes a lot to Westermarck, and shared a great deal with him. Both were imperial subjects: Westermarck was a Swedish speaker who grew up in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, while Malinowski was a pole who grew up with his country under the control of the Prussians. Both were also deeply influenced by the Brits, enough so that they relocated to the UK: At university, Westermarck discovered the work of English evolutionists such as Darwn, Huxley, and Spencer, and became interested in how marriage and morality evolved over time. As a result, he spent several years studying in England and was eventually appointed to a position at the LSE.
While Westermarck is best known for his large comparative studies and his early ethnographies of Morocco (where he lived for over two years — far longer than Malinowski spent in the field), few people have dipped into his autobiography, Memories of My Life. It’s a quirky little gem. My favourite part of the book is the photographs: few of the captions explain which person in them Westermarck is. I think the publisher assumed that readers would be able to pick him out! Westermarck also has a slightly acid predisposition and a gimlet eye. For these reasons, Westermarck’s passages on ‘English conditions’ — the customs and mores of the English — are quite delightful. They give a lovely sense of Oxbridge and British culture in around the turn of the twentieth century. Here are his recollections of the (lack of) intellectual life at Oxford:
“The hospitality in Oxford was extraordinary both in private life and at the common college dinner… To be sure, the social life is not neglected in favour of intellectual pursuits; and amongst the undergraduates sport and politics seem to play a more important part than do their studies. Many Englishmen of high position or great wealth send their sons to Oxford, not so much to drink from the springs of learning as to give them, rather, the opportunity of inhaling an atmosphere that will strengthen their lungs for a future climb to the topmost peaks of society. The training on Oxford and the acquaintances made there are an invaluable equipment for many a young man’s career at home or in the colonies.” (p. 103-104)
Of course, Oxford is not the only university in the planet where young people spend their time Not Studying, so this is hardly an indictment of that institution in particular. But does help reinforce the sense that academics have (which nonacademics do not) that Oxford is famous for being famous, reproducing the elite, and looking like a college, not necessarily for its excellent in research.
Westermarck also ruminated on the antagonism between class and intellectual work:
“Science also feels honoured to have members of the aristocracy amongst its patrons. It would certainly be beneath a lord’s dignity to become a university professor — I heard that expressly stated… — yet there have been one or two exceptions to the rule. On the other hand a lord may be permitted to follow science as a private hobby; in sport, also, great emphasis is laid on the difference between amateurs and professionals. But it cannot be said that intellectual work is at a premium amongst the upper ten. One of my friends, who belongs to an old family with many connections amongst the aristocracy, has told me how strongly his grand relations disapprove of his scientific occupations, although he has never filled any post nor earned the smallest sum by his writings — to make money by working is not really comme il faut either. But a lack of intellectual interests cannot be considered as a special sign of the nobility with that mania for sport and dislike of mental effort that distinguishes, I believe, the majority of Englishmen. Even amongst the ranks of the learned science does not always secure the first place in their esteem. An Oxford friend once confided to me that even there greater value was attached to a drop of blue blood than to a reputation for scholarship.” (p. 105-106)
That said, Westermarck was not unkind to the English and did not mean these remarks to be mean. He explained to readers that they should not be but off by English aloofness:
“The intercourse with my colleagues has been a source of much pleasure to me and naturally given me a much deeper insight into the English character. We often hear how stiff and unapproachable Englishmen are, but their reserved manners, which are connected with their habit, established by education, of restraining their emotions, must not be considered as evidence of their disposition of mind. On nearer acquaintance a great deal of warm-heartedness may be discovered under a cool exterior. In the social circles with which I have had the most to do, I have found an unusual amount of gaiety, frankness, and cordiality, combined with much consideration for others and good-breeding.” (p. 203-204).
Westermarck singles out this ‘habit of restraining emotions’ with a more general pattern of adherence to custom, rather than his Scandinavian tendency to scoff at the ridiculous:
“As regards Englishmen’s sense of humour, my experience is that such unkind jokes as are considered by many among ourselves [the Swedish] as the refinement of wit do not appeal to them at all. On the other hand, they have plenty of humour and a sense of the the comical which often strikes us as naive. A slight divergence from what is usual is often enough to cause unrestrained merriment… The ridicule or, in more serious cases, the contempt to which an individual is exposed when he does anything contrary to custom is one reason why the typical Englishman is so afraid of not acting as others do that he has become a slave to convention. He is a creature of habit, and one, moreover, who allows himself no deviation from his habits even when he is staying in a foreign land…” (p. 204-205)
In a long passage (which I have cut down here) Westermarck notes that much of English custom is focused on what not to do:
“The rules of English convention, as compared to ours, largely resemble the Ten Commandments in their negative character…. Thou shalt not ask personal questions of any but intimate friends; English folks like talking about themselves — it is not only for the fun of the thing that they write of themselves with a capital I — but they avoid indiscretion in their attitude to others… Thou shalt not talk shop; an English scholar told me of his amazement when, at a dinner in Berlin, a German professor at once began to cross-question him on his special branch of knowledge.” (p. 203-205)
There are also other interesting reflections. Here are his thoughts on writing a book:
“I have always found that it takes much less time to collect the material for a book than to write it, although the general public seem to be more impressed by the multitude of facts. The task of the writer is not only to draw conclusions and give them adequate expression, but to construct a building where every stick and stone shall have its right position, where the different parts shall form an organized whole with no unnecessary excrescences nor deficiencies either, where there shall be due proportion and symmetry on every hand. A book must be an architectural creation, an author at once its architect and builder.” (p. 102)
I don’t mean to imply that Westermarck is completely correct in his analysis of English mores (Kate Fox’s Watching the English is probably the best National Character Study I know of) nor do I mean to have a go at the English by posting these notes. I was just charmed by the frankness and vibrancy of Westermarck’s prose. Readers of his heavy fin-de-siecle tomes would never imagine that there was a personality underneath them. Memories of My Life helps us see Westermarck — and his English contemporaries — as real people.
I’m proud to announce that I’ve become one of the hosts for the New Book Network’s New Books in Anthropology podcast! In my inaugural episode, I talk with David Varel, the author of the first-ever biography of Allison Davis. Davis (1902-1983) was a pioneering anthropologist who did ground-breaking fieldwork in the Jim Crow south, challenged the racial bias of IQ tests, and became the first African American to be tenured at the University of Chicago. In this episode in New Books in Anthropology we talk about Davis’s collaboration with authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Sapir, John Dollard, W. Lloyd Warner Warner, St. Clair Drake, and many others. We also discuss how Davis pioneered concepts such as structural racism and explored the relationship between race and class. David Varel talks about the choices he made as a White academic writing about an African American life, and the importance of widening intellectual genealogies by including ‘lost’ figures such as Davis. I hope you enjoy it!
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.
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/Studies. The 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.
The summer is winding up and the list of books I’d like to read during my Copious Free Time is growing. I want to highlight them here, just so I don’t forget about them, and to let people know they’ve been published (or soon will be), since they all look to be very good.
- In The Field: Life and Work in Cultural Anthropology by George and Sharon “Baseball Magic” Gmelch will probably offer insight into the habits and lifetimes of baby boomer anthropologists like the Gmlechs. Given their past work I’m sure this will be readable and richly ethnographic.
- Pioneers of the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists by Andrew Bank offers us chapters on Monica Wilson, Ellen Hellmann, Audrey Richards, Hilda Kuper, Winifred Hoernlé, and Eileen Krige. I think I’ve read something of Bank’s before. His subjects are certainly worth the candle — remarkable women all, with remarkable stories to boot. I’m particularly interested in Audrey Richards, and enjoyed The Fires Beneath, the recent-ish bio of Monica Wilson
- My Butch Career: A Memoir by Esther Newton. My god is it ever not a good time to read Esther Newton? Newton’s previous autobiographical writings are fantastic, and I’m sure this will be hilarious and insightful as well.
That’s it for now… not sure I will actually get to too many of these, as I’m struggling to finish up Margaret Bruchac’s excellent Savage Kin but am already running into other obligations, and finding time to squeeze in pleasure reading is always a challenge. But a pleasure is precisely what I expect these readings to be.
(Update: I almost forgot to mention My Life As A Spy by Katherine Verdery! – AG 9 Aug 18)