Third Culture

John Mcreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 5 Sep 1995 09:03:40 +0900

Jim Davila writes,

"Please don't dismiss the humanities quite so quickly. Not all of
us are
writing "commentaries spiraling on commentaries" and many of
us are
rather horrified at the ideological and nihilist trends in our

There is still plenty of useful traditional work being done in the
humanities, such as editions of texts, historical-critical analysis,
philology. And the more modern methods, such as feminist
studies and
deconstruction certainly have their place, although in my
opinion their
value is grossly inflated in the current job market in the U.S.!"

Thanks, Jim, for chiming in. First, an apology. I WAS dismissive
about the humanities tout court, and this is NOT a position I
wish to embrace. I am forced to consider more carefully what it
is I am trying to say, and for this I thank you. Let me try again.

What I value can be summed up in three words: public, serious,

"Public" implies concern with large intellectual and political
issues. The immediate subject may be esoteric and of interest
only to specialists. Stephen Gould, for example, studies snails. I
have put some effort (not nearly enough) into understanding
the ways of Daoist magicians. There is, however, a constant
concern to see THROUGH these subjects to questions of wider

"Serious" implies an attempt to sift impressions and formulate
HOW things happen, in detail. To read Gould, or any of the other
scientists, whom Brockman includes in his book is to enter
worlds that are filled with telling detail and attempts to explore
the mechanisms through which they come about. In my own
work, the piece that best exemplifies my own attempts to follow
their example is the one that just appeared in American
Ethnologist on "Negotiating with Demons." The initial problem is
one familiar to religious scholars: how to read the words
employed in a bit of minor ritual. The initial impulse is clearly
in line with current theoretical interests: the magician is
constructing a power relation vis-a-vis the demons. Then comes
the interesting part. How, in detail, does he do this and what, if
any, insights do anthropologists' ideas contribute to
understanding this process. It is one thing to mutter "social
construction," another entirely to understand the builder's tools
and how to use them.

"Scholarship" is, at its best, a contribution to an on-going
conversation, with due regard to what others have already
contributed. The foundation is respect for what has gone before
and an effort to understand why others, in all likelihood as
smart as we are but starting in a different historical and
cultural milieu, reached the conclusions they did. What is
horrifying to me is that "anthropologists" can now leave
graduate schools with little or no training in traditional
scholarly skills like those Jim mentions. Imagine, by way of
contrast, the position of a "physicist" attacking, say, Murray
Gell-Man (the inventor of "quarks"), who hadn't worked first
through the physics created by Newton, Faraday, Einstein and
Heisenberg first. When I wrote the first draft of my paper and
managed to ignore a decade or so of work in linguistic
anthropology (I was picking up a project I'd started in 1980),
Don Brenneis very properly got on my case and made me go
look it up.

What makes the "Third Culture" scientists interesting to me is
that these are clearly serious people, deeply involved in
scholarship, who address great public issues in a serious and
scholarly way.

John McCreery