Pro and con postmodernism (was: CFP: Postmod ling anth) [LONG]

Cameron Laird (claird@Starbase.NeoSoft.COM)
26 Jan 1995 11:21:50 -0600

In article <>,
Gerold Firl <> wrote:
>It does indeed, and it is a most interesting document. I have some
>questions. I have never read any postmodern anthropology, so I am inferring
>wildly from my limited experience, but what I see here is a tendentious,
>pretentious, contradictory confabulation of self-absorbed ideology
>masquerading as some kind of science. Perhaps some kind soul could explain
>what is going on here?
To first order, Mr. Firl, you don't need that, for
your instincts are as keen as ever in caricaturing
the case. You provide the explanation
>consideration of the *politics* of the ethnographic encounter! Who cares
>about the culture, who cares about the language, the important question is
>whether the "anthropologist" was wearing the right tie for the interview!
>Why not dispense with these messy subjects altogether? A true postmodern
Leaving aside for the moment that you have inverted
one of the propositions of the authors of the ab-
stract we quote (confusing description and
prescription), you're making the right argument.
Is anthropology about languages and cultures? Yes,
sure, but single-minded pursuit of that path leads
to the nightmares (anthropologists who destroy the
cultures they study, because they are spies or
vectors of infection or witnesses for the prosecu-
tion or ...) you have read in ANTHRO-L. Should
anthropologists think about the consequences of
their actions? Of course, but in the wrong hands
the result of that is an apparently infinite post-
modern regress of navel inspection, terminologic
elaboration, and politically hypersensitive episte-
[clever sermonizing
about lack of sub-
stance and academic
>they are associated with "(neo)colonialist/imperialist projects". Plus,
>they're always talking about facts, and data, and testable hypotheses,
>which are so bothersome. Far better to spout some feel-good postmodernese
>about the solidarity of the oppressed and the evils of capitalism, liberally
>sprinkled with the appropriate buzzwords ("discourse" being the most
>reliable tag).
>To me, the goal of anthropology and linguistics is to understand culture
>and language. These postmodern poseurs appear to have lost sight of that.
>Why bother with such nonsense?
In part for the reason you so stridently preach--weak
minds find it convenient to ride a fashionable band-
wagon that relieves them of responsibility. However,
another part of the answer is that testable hypotheses
*can* be an oppression, and that some of the actions
of some traditional anthropologists *have* been crim-
inal. Mr. Firl, the best information I have is that
the organizers of the session on postmodern anthro-
pologic linguistics are trying to do the hard work of
gaining new insight and designing new patterns for
leadership in the practice of ethnography. One of
the risks in the approach they take is that it will
settle in cant and whining; in fact, if I were a co-
author, I'd insist on changing some passages of their
proposal. Fine. However, your "totalizing" condem-
nation of their attempt seems just as extreme and
rhetorical. Honor the reductive science you prefer
by giving us specific "facts, and data, and testable
hypotheses" to support your accusations. Even bet-
ter, put your good mind to work at synthesizing a
balance between getting facts straight, and figuring
out what those facts mean in human lives.
I've trimmed follow-ups slightly.


Cameron Laird +1 713 267 7966 +1 713 996 8546