Re: Chomsky, structuralism

Jana Fortier (fortier@STUDENTS.WISC.EDU)
Tue, 5 Dec 1995 11:05:41 -0600

You're right, I think, in noting how excited structuralists (and other
structuralist wannabes) all got in trying to place the "Mendelevian table
of the mind," as you call it on the lang. and cult. of others. I remember
my senior thesis, called "The Transformational Value System of Campus
Crusade for Christ" in which I pretty much did the strucutalist thing too.
I thought that by looking at their transitive [+concrete] verb forms (Have
you "received" Jesus Christ? I have "spoken" to J.C. ...) there would be
some deep insights into their value orientations. (I won't disclose the
conclusions on this valuable work!!!) So, yah, many of us really were
influenced by Levi-Strauss' lifting of Chomsky's paradigm.
Again, I have to note that its the POLITICAL nature of theorizing
which was so hostile during that time in the 60-70's. So much lovely
ethnographic material, like Winnebago myths, were lifted and incorrectly
used just to prove theoretical points. That's unethical, I think. Does
anyone think that using ethnographic material just to prove an academically
political theoretical point is unethical too? (I smell hotcakes...!)


>I don't know enough to say what effect Chomsky has had on anthropology as a
whole, except perhaps as a demonized Other for linguistic anthropologists
who insistquite properly that language as she is spoken is a messier
business than
>Chomsky's austere structures suggest. (Many years ago I heard Wallace Chafee
>offer a wonderful image here. To Chomskyians, he said, language is like a
>shiney new erector set. All the pieces are clean and new and the only
interesting questions are how to put them together. The languages
anthropologists study are like erector sets discovered years later in dusty
attics. Some pieces are
>missing. Others have been replaced by rubber bands, pencil stubs and bits of
>aged bubble gum. We wonder who owned the set, what kinds of things they built
>with it, and what those things meant to them. We are more interested in how
>people play with the pieces than in trying to define the logical relations
that limit their use.)
>Be that as it may, when I was in graduate school I found Chomsky inspiring and
>likewise Levi-Strauss. Both suggested the possibility of (to use L-S's image)
>discovering a "Mendelevian table of the mind," a set of elements from which
>all the enormous variety of cultures could be constructed. I have never seen
>any contradiction between this vision and careful attention to the historical
>and social particularities Chafee talks about. Knowing the table of chemical
>elements is one thing. Knowing how some of the elements fit together to form
>DNA, semiconductors or spaceships is another. Both are valuable chunks of
>Anyone care to call me on this?
>John McCreery