Language and writing

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 12 Oct 1996 16:45:33 +0900

Aaron Fox writes,

"I appreciated the various moves to open the space between A & B by John
Leila, Patrick , Sangeeta . . . I wanted to explore that space a bit more
abstractly . . . below."


He goes on to ask,

"What is the status, then, of the concept of "rule" (template, script,
principle/paramter, structure, pattern, norm, constraint, etc.) for any
particular description of language "usage?" The habits of our contemporary
common sense seem to me to compel us to draw a distinction between rules of
structure and rules of usage, to categorize one set of rules as biological
in nature (principles), with an overlay of historical variation
(parameters), while categorizing the other set of rules (for usage) as
primarily historical in nature, with an implied but murkily understood
biological overlay."

This is, indeed, the heart of the matter.

"But the entire distinction between evolution and history, or biology and
culture, is itself a cultural/historical artifact in a state of continual
erosion from multiple abrasive forces (see below), and like all such
artifacts it can be contextualized evolutionarily or historically or
somewhere in the interaction beween culture as history and culture as

Couldn't agree more.

"It is that interaction, the interstitial zone where history and evolution
impinge upon each other, which 'anthropology' has taken as its traditional
object. We have lately moved away from the claim that this interaction is
significant enough that an "anthropological" perspective (as opposed to a
linguistic one say, or a "common sense" one) must by definition invoke it,
attempt to explain the queries it confronts ("are all languages equal?" or
"Does writing constitute a qualitative break in human evolution or social
history?) in terms of that interaction."

Again, a good description of our current situation.

"We therefore cede the ground of that mode of explanation (broadly, the
appeal to "human nature") to people who have other more (or differently)
polarized (and "anthropologically" wrong-headed) ways of accounting for
"nature's" influence on the present, on experience, on conflict, on social
being, or on history (including, but not limited to, the "sociobiological"
explanations that prevail as common sense today alongside the completely
individualistic explanations of the psychology racket, the metaphysical
explanations of the religion racket, and the ahistorical explanations of
the "culture" -- as in 'multiculturalism' - racket). But certainly, the
appeal to "Political Economy" or "History" is no less fraught with the
potential for racketeering by claiming a privileged access to the ground of
"the real."

How right you are!

"A quick reading of Raymond Williams's work on the kind of intellectual
work the "culture" concept had to do in the 19th century as it emerged
alongside "society," "history," "economy," and "civilization" should remind
us we are still moving within a very closely bounded conceptual space when
we invoke History or Political Economy *against* Evolution or Culture. Far
more intriguing to me as a strategy for preserving anthropological
discourse is to continue to insist on the dialectical totality of the idea
of "culture," rather than yield it as ground lost to social history or
evolutionary science."

Whoops, you lost me. Care to explicate that "dialectical totality"
business? The quote from Foucault is a stab, but as murky in effect as the
terms it purports to explain. Can we unpack this for those of us who favor
an Orwellian ("Politics and the English Language") approach to thinking and

Here, too, I would like to throw in an ethnographic observation and see
what others make of it. To wit,

There is a continuum (at least a range, continuum may be too strong) of
language skills. At one extreme is the ability we call "speaking a
language" that is shared by all undamaged human beings over the age of
three or so. At the other are such esoteric arts as writing eight-legged
essays, scholarly articles, haiku or sonnets, spec sheets for
semiconductors, ad copy, and, yes, bestsellers. In talking about the
former, we adopt a resolutely egalitarian stance. In talking about the
latter, we freely shift to hierarchy; we feel quite comfortable describing
one example as better or worse than another. There are, of course,
exceptions: Some of us assert that the language(s) children learn to speak
can be viewed hierarchically. Others (here I think of some
deconstructionist critics) seem driven to claim that words written by
Shakespeare and those spoken by the village idiot are equally valuable.
Both these claims are deeply disturbing to the common sense from which (and
here, I believe, Aaron is right on the money) we all mostly operate. Note,
too, how at both extremes we tend to invoke the nature side of the
nature/culture dichotomy, as bioprogram or talent. What is going on here?

P.S. I do have some ideas of my own, grounded in reading Bourdieu's
_Distinction_. I would, however, like to hear from some other folks before
babbling on.

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo