Re: Meaning, Sharing, Culture

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Tue, 9 Apr 1996 14:30:11 -0230

Re Hill's proposal for an abandonment of meaning in cultural studies, does
anyone recall a similar suggestion, carried out to its (absurd? illogical?)
conclusion in Marvin Harris' book 'The Nature of Cultural Things'?

Let me say right off the bat that normally I have it in for Mr Harris. I
disagree with just about everything he writes, even in cases where I might
have some sympathy for the general point he is making. In particular, I hold
him responsible as ringleader in the popularization in the U.S. of a
seriously distorted missunderstanding of French Structuralism, and
particularly its relationship to Marxist thought. Despite this I have a
specially warm feelings for him for having written 'The Nature of Cultural
Things', precisely because it is an important, if not magnificent, failure.

I'm not sure if this was Harris' point in publishing it, but it is worth
looking at because of its failure. If we assume meaning is purely a matter
of cultural convention, then it ought, in theory, to be possible to
describle cultural regularities (objects and actions) separately from the
meanings which are conventionally associated with them. Harris's book
bravely sets out to measure meaning-free culture (and in doing so he invents
an elaborate typology of cultural acts). As far as I recall, using his
method it takes him the whole book just to describe a few minutes of the
cultual activity of making breakfast. I suppose the payoff if this kind of
anthropology was seriously adopted would be an employment bonanza for
anthropologists, as it would take several years to describe and analyze
relatively simple activities.

Adrian Tanner

Adrian Tanner, Dept of Anthropology, Memorial University, St John's,
Newfoundland, Canada. A1C 5S7. email Tel 709 737
8868 fax 737 8686