Week 6: sign language and unconscous kinships (Julia)

I am very sorry about the delay in posting this! It wont happen again…

Over the last few weeks, it has been really interesting to read texts that have altered and expanded the objects of anthropological investigation. Hence, we have moved away from modes of analyzing, classifying and understanding social relations and societies through generalized notions of races, tools, organisms and economic exchange. Instead, the anthropologists of recent weeks have found ways to investigate objects like gifts, and behaviours like joking, as vital to getting inside social relations. In regards to anthropology, Levi-Strauss states, “the nature of the explanation must change as radically as the newly appeared phenomenon differs from those which have preceded and prepared it” (51). While this statement is noteworthy, Mauss’s examination of gifts and Radcliff-Brown’s examination of joking relationships demonstrate the ways in which the nature of phenomenon radically changes, not exclusively through the appearance of a new phenomenon but also through the anthropologist’s nuanced modes of observing a particular phenomenon. This weeks readings on structuralism continued to open up a nuanced terrain of observing and examining social relations through exploring linguistics and kinship as prime sites of anthropological inquiry.

Urged by Asad’s notion that the invisible status of the anthropologist needs to be de-cloaked, revealed and objectified, I am interested in enacting a dual reading of the texts we read this week. What I mean by a dual reading is to read the substance within the ethnographic texts (to understand and interpret the ethnographic story that the anthropologist is telling) while simultaneously reading the anthropologist as a central figure within the text. Hence, how does any given ethnography show and tell on the anthropologist that wrote it? I am aware that reorienting the ethnographer into a figure within the ethnographic text is perhaps inescapably a gesture that places myself into the role of the ethnographer who is studying the ethnographer just as the ethnographer studied his objects. I am unsure of the stakes and implications of reading these anthropological texts in this manner and am further uncertain about other ways to read these texts. Perhaps discussing our own reading practices of anthropological/ethnographic texts might be worth discussing in our upcoming conversation.

I found an interesting connection between Asad’s text and Saussure’s articulation of language in Part 1 of “A General Course in Linguistics”. Just as Asad noted how the originary colonial premise of anthropology resided in the disinterested invisibleness of the anthropologist, Saussure, in a similar way, marks language as that which cannot itself be examined. Accordingly to Saussure, language gives its speakers the tools to study everything except for language itself. As Saussure states, “the system is a complex mechanism that can be grasped only through reflection; the very ones who use it daily are ignorant of it” (73). Saussure further argues that even “if people were more conscious of language than they are, they would still not know how to discuss it” (73). Hence, paradoxically people who use language cannot talk about it. Language is master-pattern that articulates everything but itself. In this sense, Saussure articulates language as inhabiting a role similar to Asad’s characterization of the anthropologist, as language describes the world but cannot be made to account for itself, is beyond examination and outside of the very discourse that it creates.

In enacting a dual reading of Levi-Strauss’s “Language and Kinship” I became aware and interested in the ways that, in telling of the kinship structures that he was witnessing, Levi-Strauss was simultaneously cultivating his own kinship structure between anthropology, linguistics and psychoanalysis. Primarily, Levi-Straus examines the kinship structures of “other” cultures as a mode of constructing and illustrating the kinship between anthropology and linguistics. Hence, while explaining the kinship structures that are formed through avoiding the universal taboo of incest between brother-sister, of equal importance to Levi-Strauss’s text is to articulate the ways in which “linguistics and anthropologists follow their own paths independently” yet “halt, no doubt, from time to time to communicate to one another certain of their findings” (32).

Levi-Strauss includes psychology as a central figure involved within the foundational kinship structures of anthropology. As centrally intertwined with linguistics, Levi-Strauss discusses how Troubertz-koy’s characterization of structural linguistics as the shift from “the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure”(p.32) impacts the observational framework that the ethnographer utilizes. In addition to psychoanalysis, Levi-Strauss demonstrates how structural linguistics informs anthropology by turning to history. Hence, Straus writes of how “the linguist contributes to the solution of the problem by revealing the tenacious survival in contemporary vocabulary of relationships which have long since disappeared” (p.32). Thus, in a sense Levi-Strauss’s text tells us more, and is more reflective of, the kinships relations being built within anthropology at the historical moment in which his piece was written than it ever could about the kinship structures of those he was studying. Hence, by placing Levi-Strauss as a character within this story of “Language and Kinships”, a tale of two kinships is being told.

Another query that I formed while reading “Language and Kinships” has to do with the curious way in which Levi-Strauss in particular, and ethnographers in general, tend to turn bodies and the patterns that they believe compose various social relationships, into symbols. For example, in Figure 1, Levi-Strauss turns the kinship structures found in Trobriand, Sinuai, Cherkess, Tonga and Lake Kubutu into geometric diagrams (p.45). And in Figure 2, Levi-Strauss turns attitudes into symbols, converting mutuality into (=), reciprocity into (+), rights into (+), and into obligations (-) (p.49). What is the purpose of these symbolic conversions? Is it to generate different modes of understanding the relationships explained in this text? Is it a mechanism for attempting to make this text appear scientific? Do anthropologists see social relations as symbolic and demonstrate this by actually converting social relations into symbols? Is the appearance of symbols in Levi-Strauss (and other anthropologists) text yet another manifestation of the significance of symbol-making as integral to meaning and culture-making? What exactly does Levi-Strauss mean when he states, “in both anthropological and linguistic research, we are dealing strictly with symbolism” (51)?  Perhaps in order to unpack these questions it might be useful to explore the relationship between signs and symbols. In anticipation of our next week on totemism, I would also like to discuss: what is the connection between symbols and totems?

To close this reflection, I would like to move back to Saussure’s pieces and share some final thoughts I had while reading his work. I felt that Saussure’s notion of language as material, as composed through the (signified) sound-image and the (signifier) concept, seemed like a precursor to Haraway’s notion of the material-semiotic. The notion of the ‘sign’ and its relationships between signifier and signified opened up the conceptual space to re-examine the composition behind language while simultaneously turning language into a social text to be interpreted.  Saussure’s notion of language as a social text enabled language to acquire a sense of being embodied and alive. As Saussure claims, “in each state the mind infiltrated a given substance and breathed life into it” (86). Sassure further states, “A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable” (56). Hence, articulating language as a social text that embodies the life signs of social relations created the possibility for embodied subjects to be perceived as inhabiting a kind of language. As a result, bodies are considered as signs; engaged with, constituted through and read as material-semiotic substances. I further feel that Saussure’s notion of the arbitrary nature of the sign lead to more radical understandings (I am thinking primarily here of Wittig, Butler) of the arbitrary nature of identity categories as constructed through things like skin colour and sex. I would like to discuss further how Saussure’s notion of language as a sign is linked to a rearticulation of bodies as text and what kind of impact this might have had on the discourse of anthropology.

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