Re: CFP: Postmod ling anth

Todd Michel McComb (
Wed, 25 Jan 1995 20:46:18 GMT

[cross-posting trimmed]

In article <> Gerold Firl writes:
>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?

First, you need to keep in mind that arguments about paradigms
sometimes seem rather far removed from the disciplines themselves. One
finds this in lots of areas, and of course it doesn't hurt to ask these
people how what they're saying actually affects the practice itself.

For me, postmodernist relevance in anthropology really revolves around
two basic ideas: the extent to which one can understand a person who is
not oneself (and, by extension, a culture which is not your own), and
the degree to which paradigms are self-fulfilling (finding what you're
looking for, as the old saying goes).

The first question is crucial to anthropology, simply because it is the
only discipline in which the "objects of study" are on the same level
as oneself, by default. I think you can find many people for whom the
implication that you completely understand them is the most insulting
thing imaginable -- in fact, one can view this as the basic affront
behind reactions to stereotypes. Of course, the mere existence of the
insulting effect does not make the implication false by itself.
However, most people's lives are full of examples in which they have
failed to understand some aspect of another person, in one way or

The second question is more technical, and basically related to the
first. If one can begin with two different points of views, and arrive
at two different conclusions which are internally valid, then this is
something one might like to be aware of. The complexity of human
affairs -- and the necessary *connection* to the observer -- renders
this possibility not only more viable, but more acute. Many of the
arguments on interpretation that one sees hinge on this point.

Since you, apparently, are most interested in macroscopic cultural
interpretations, these "microscopic" (person-to-person) model
difficulties raise the question of the interaction between the micro-
and macro-domains. This is a basic issue of "complex systems" and a
fundamental driver for nonlinear science in general. Various tools
have been developed in the last few few decades in order to address
this interaction from the purely mathematical point of view. As you
may know, it is not simple.

However, as you say, the whole point to anthropology is to understand
another culture, so one would still like to proceed. The idea behind
the postmodernist paradigm is to account for these problems and attempt
a greater level of understanding. Unfortunately, that does not mean
that the problems go away (they can't), but by discussing them along
with the basic data, it is hoped that one's interpretations will be
more meaningful to everyone involved.

And, as you point out, postmodernism has its problems.

The language can be difficult and convoluted -- this is really an
outgrowth of the modern trend for every discipline to have extensive
technical jargon. However, one need not indulge in flowery rhetoric in
order to take a postmodernist stance; criticisms of such should be
directed at the author and not at postmodernism per se.

You also raise the issue of whether it is even possible to know whether
someone has made a meaningful contribution, when their "discourse" is
couched in postmodernist rhetoric. This is a good issue; whether these
things are going anywhere at all (and indeed where they would even like
to go) is an open question. However, I should point out that it is
demonstrably easier to follow existing paradigms rather than do anything
truly original within an academic discipline -- so that we may easily
conclude that the early postmodernists were certainly *not* taking the
easy way out. They must have believed strongly in what they were doing
and were in fact able to convince others who were not predisposed to
agree. Of course, they may well have paved the way for all of these
"poseurs" about whom you complain.

Postmodernism may easily be used to critique itself; that is one of its
charms, in my opinion. And so, one might well be able to improve upon
current paradigms -- at any rate, there's no reason not to try to do
so. But, the thing is, returning to the "pristine" world of human
inquiry prior to the advent of postmodernism is not the answer. The
postmodernists have raised valid issues, as well as making significant
problems. The only tenable option is to attempt to address both, if
one is actually going to improve academic paradigms of this sort.

Todd Michel McComb

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