Language anyone?

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 19 Mar 1995 08:56:04 JST

Tom Rimkus writes,

"I, too, studied logic and liguistic formalisms in the 60's before
traveling extensively in Mexico, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. One
thing caught my eye was that the farther away from English speaking nations one
moved the less these formal structures held any insights. His deep semantic
structure seemed to me to be really only an interesting extension of
formal syntactic analysis. I think that this body of work somewhat
parallels the fundamental nature of science itself, in that the world
which currently lends itself to scientific scrutiny is only a very small
subset of the goo as a whole. There is always room to stretch the model
to incorporate more and I for one will be interested to see you develop on
this thread."

Nice to know there's a fellow traveler on this road. Just hope he's not
waiting for me to carry the whole load.

My piece in the latest _American Ethnologist_ points in one direction we
might go: combining several approaches to see what they jointly reveal
about a particular case. In this particular instance, I drew on speech-act
theory a la Austin; Fernandez on metaphor; and Bloch on formalization to
sort out what was going on in the words used in a Chinese ritual. In
my conclusion I write:

"Che ngo'-kui is a minor rite, and the healer who performs it is a none-too-
orthodox exemplar of the Taoist traditions he claims to represent. But in
reading its text, what we have found is rhetorical subtlety no single approach
to interpretation can more than briefly illuminate. There is, however, no
cause for despair. Like the stories told by the blind men who touched
different parts of the elephant, the various readings I have brought to bear
are more complementary than contradictory. Combined, the form a complex
picture than may, perhaps, "retain the persuasive clarity that went with the
simple ones" (Geertz 1973:33)

"We have witnessed a healer negotiating with demons, drawing them into a
social contract that gives him authority over them. We have seen him use
metaphor, verballing transforming the demons from amoral but powerful beings
to nameless--and powerless--creatures. We have seen him manipulate levels
of formality--poeticallly and logically--in support of the impression he
aims to foster. Instead of a rite of return, we have found a performance
that first creates and then destroys relationships--a rite of no return in
which, as Bauman and Sherzer (1974) suggest, 'the strategic and goal-
directed manipulation of resources for speaking' has many and varied roles
to play."

In sum, I have argued for combining pragmatic (speech act), dramatic (metaphor),and poetic (formalization) perspectives without privileging one over the
other. What I am searching for is additional perspectives--more ways to touch
the elephant <g>--or someone who can show me convincingly that another approach
produces a more powerful interpretation. What constitutes a more or less
powerful interpretation is, of course, the heart of the issue.

Waiting for enlightenment.

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)