CHRIS KNIGHT In order to understand what language or culture is, we have to understand what it is not. This is very difficult for social anthropologists to do. Perhaps, because they themselves live in a linguistic and cultural milieu, it is well-nigh impossible for them to obtain an adequate perspective. We came closest to it when Alfred Gell spoke about palaeontology, and about whether the australopithecines or Homo habilis or Homo erectus did or did not have language. He was quite right to conclude that they did not. In order to get any scientific perspective on this, we have to look at the capacities of our nearest relatives, the non-human primates. Specialists are currently more or less agreed that non-human primates have the capacity to sign: they use call signs and they can label objects in their environments. 26 They also have concepts, but these are not common concepts. For example, one chimpanzee may imitate the movements of another in reaching for a banana: the first, in its movements, is not really getting a banana, but does so only symbolically. Its gesture is a pretence. It is, moreover, an individual one, it is not part of a common repertoire. Thus chimpanzees have signs, and they have concepts; what they do not have is signs for concepts. Chimpanzees can lie, but they cannot lie collectively. And the essence of human culture is the capacity, collectively, to lie—that is to enact the pantomime or fantasy, for example in dance, of being (say) kangaroos when the participants are not really kangaroos at all. If chimpanzees could do this, to pretend collectively to be what they are not, then they would be moving in the symbolic domain. To do it, they would not need verbal language. What is needed is a collective repertoire of gestures; it has to be collective in order for those gestures to be shared and for their meanings to be communicable.
What I have found disappointing in the presentations is the way the issue of the relation between language and culture has been presented as one that can only be approached philosophically rather than through objective scientific inquiry. Only one speaker, Gell, has addressed the issue scientifically. I should like, however, to respond to his point that there is nothing to be learned from the phylogenetic approach since to find out what anatomically modern humans can do we need only look at ourselves. This is not so. Archaeologists and palaeontologists have shown that anatomically modern humans were living 90,000 or 100,000 years ago possibly even 130,000 years ago—without any evidence whatsoever of music, dance, ritual and symbolic culture. It looks as though it was not until some 60,000 years ago that the revolution of the Upper Palaeolithic—a revolution that was evidently both social, sexual and political—enabled anatomically modern humans, who were potentially capable of language, to establish the kind of collectivity in which language could actually be developed. Simply to have a capacity does not mean that it will be realized. No doubt human beings have had the capacity to type for many thousands of years, yet this capacity has only materialized in the last few decades. Thus it is not sufficient to talk about the capacity for language that anatomically modern humans doubtless possessed; we have also to consider the political decisions that, through their establishment of collectivity, made possible its realization. That is why I would support the view that language is not the essence of culture. It is indeed a part of culture, but the central essence of culture is the collective pantomime—the rituals and gestures which, once collectivized, could be invested with a common significance.
GEORGE WILMERS It seems to me that the term ‘language’ is to be understood either in such a general sense as to mean any system of communication, whether verbal or non-verbal, in which case the motion is simply tautologous, or else in a more specific sense that would exclude certain major cultural forms. Two of the most striking exclusions are mathematics and music. As regards mathematics, though some sort of language is clearly necessary for its communication, very few mathematicians would argue that language has much to do with the essence of what mathematics is about. Now as regards music, it is of course self-evident that music does not require language for its immediate communication. You might, however, still believe that the real meaning of music is somehow bound up with language, or in other words that music requires language for its interpretation or for its appreciation by the individual. But so far as I know, this is contradicted by physiological evidence which indicates that music is handled by a different part of the brain from the part that deals with verbal language. It is known that lesions can occur in the non-dominant hemisphere of the brain which actually prevent the appreciation of music. They have the effect on the individual that music is registered simply as sound without meaning, yet the ability of patients to understand the meaning of ordinary verbal discourse remains unimpaired. At the same time, other kinds of lesions, affecting the dominant hemisphere of the brain, prevent the individual from understanding the sounds of ordinary speech even though he can hear them. The patient cannot understand speech but can still understand music. This seems to me to be quite overwhelming evidence in support of the view that, in reality, the structures involved in musical appreciation and in the appreciation of other significant forms are quite different.
IAN DUNMORE We need to ask what is meant by language, and what is meant by communication. Are these the same or quite different things?
RICHARD WERBNER There may be more disagreement between those who appear to be on the same side than between those who appear to be on different sides. This puzzles me more than the question of what is meant by language and communication. On the one hand, Alfred Gell was very strict. He wanted a clear definition of what language is and implied that as a phenomenon, it is quite distinct. And for that reason, he opposed David Parkin for letting language spill over into communication or, more generally, into culture. On the other hand, James Weiner was apparently for dissolving the essence of culture, language and everything else. By the end, I felt that Gell’s main opponent was his seconder!
TIM INGOLD Three significant questions have been raised so far. First, to put it baldly, there is the question of philosophy versus science. Can the issue of the relation between language and culture be resolved through scientific investigation, for example of the palaeontological evidence or of the behaviour of non-human primates, or are we really dealing with philosophical issues that must ultimately force the practitioners of natural science to rethink their epistemological assumptions?
Second, there is the question of how language stands in relation to mathematics and music, particularly music, and of the neurophysiological correlates of that relation. To what extent does the brain structure our patterns of thought, and to what extent is it rather the case that our patterns of thought structure our models of how the brain works? (In a recent article, a distinguished neurophysiologist claimed, in all seriousness, that when people deliver well-formed propositional statements these issue from the neocortex, but that what the author rather primly called ‘curse words or interjections’ issue from a more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system. 27 It does sometimes seem that the conventional dichotomies of Western thought, between reason and emotion, and even between language and music, lie behind such models of the divided brain.)
Third, there is the question of how we should define language anyway, and of the relationship between language and communication.
DAVID PARKIN I believe Chris Knight falls into the same trap as Alfred Gell. He opposes the motion, yet it was I, in proposing it, who suggested (following Kendon) that language began as pantomime. The underlying problem lies in the arbitrary separation of the verbal and non-verbal. When Knight or Gell speaks of the ‘capacity for language’, that separation, which is only evident from the way language appears to us in the present, is assumed as though it were there from the start. Similarly, when Gell refers to phylogenetic and ontogenetic processes, he is judging these by their end-products. But if you take a genuinely processual view, then it is clear that language must have been preceded by something. It could not arise, of a sudden, ex nihilo. As Kendon shows, we are mistaken in assuming that language originated with acoustic communication. It did not. It originated with a whole range of kinds of communication. And when Gell speaks of the development of language in ontogenesis, he has in mind the socialized adult, the adult that is culturally complete and therefore linguistically complete. He refers to the child as a cultural entity but not a linguistic one. And yet linguistic competence is based upon socialization. Would this not apply to cultural competence as well? If it did, then by Gell’s argument, the child would be without both culture and language. And this exactly makes our point.
ALFRED GELL The question before us is not whether pantomime is the essence of culture, but whether language is. And this is not a question about origins. Thus I am not saying that palaeontology is irrelevant. I would only say that it is not relevant to the truth or falsity of the motion as proposed. Clearly, the study of the role of language in human evolution is interesting and worthwhile. But the reasoning tends always to work from the present to the past, as in ethnoarchaeology where a model derived from present observation is used to interpret some prehistoric site. Now, there is clearly a connection between linguistic theory and archaeology or prehistory, in that one can use linguistic theory to make various inferences about early man. However, having made such inferences on the basis of back-projection from contemporary language, what you cannot do is to put this in reverse, using these inferences to bolster whatever conclusions you might want to reach about the centrality or otherwise of language as a contemporary phenomenon.
I should like to add a comment regarding language, music and the brain. Although the evidence suggesting that language and music involve different hemispheres of the brain would appear to support our case, this is in fact a double-edged sword since it is clear that the dominant hemisphere is the linguistic one. Popper and Eccles, 28 for example, have argued quite cogently that damage to the centres of verbal language—i.e. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area—does lead to profound transformations in people’s sense of self, since their actions are no longer accompanied by an interior monologue which, at least according to some interpretations, is consciousness itself. Eccles, for example, has quite explicitly identified consciousness with Wernicke’s area. Now I would not go along with this. Hence, when it comes to the neurological arrangements, I find myself on rather difficult ground in that there does exist rather specialized circuitry for managing verbal acoustic language which develops in the early stages of ontogenesis and that has nothing directly to do with music. Thus, the neurological evidence could be adduced both to support and to oppose the proposition. What we are left with is the rather more difficult problem, so far as the brain is concerned, of understanding the integration of the whole rather than of locating particular functions of particular parts. People like Eccles, who are keen to localize particular functions, can do so to their satisfaction. But what nobody appears to be able to say, at present, is just how all the various parts are connected up.
JAMES WEINER I should like to respond to Chris Knight, because while it might seem that he is arguing more for our case, I would not wish my position to be identified with his. In what sense can one distinguish between what Knight calls a gesture and what he calls verbal behaviour? What is the difference between a vocal gesture, which is a word, and which is, after all, produced through bodily exertion, and the kind of gesture to which he refers? Is it supposed that the former is more symbolic, more arbitrary, more representational?
As regards the issue of music: I would not wish to dispute the findings of neurophysiologists who claim that appreciation of musical structure is somehow localized in a different part of the brain from that involved in the appreciation of verbal or sentential structure, that is of speech. But the questions I should like to pose are these: First, why, and under what circumstances, are we led to take it for granted that a piece of music has one kind of meaning and that an utterance has another? Only because we draw a distinction between these two kinds of meaning are we led to look for its neurological correlate. And second, why, and under what circumstances, are we led to believe that the skills necessary to appreciate or perform music, and the ways we learn them, are any different from the skills of speaking, and the ways that they are learned?
TIM INGOLD The resort to neurophysiological evidence entails a certain risk of circularity, since neurophysiologists, too, use metaphors to describe processes in the brain, and these metaphors tend to be drawn from the language of cultural representation. You cannot, then, turn this around to claim that these representations have an independent basis in neurophysiology. It also seems to me that the problems of delimiting music as a phenomenon in its own right are rather similar to the problems of delimiting the phenomenon of language. I wonder whether the dichotomy between language and music, which some neurophysiologists would say is inscribed in the division between the two hemispheres of the brain, is not one that is specific to our own tradition of thought, and whether such a dichotomy would be recognized by people else-where.
IAN KEEN The debate has been largely about boundaries, or about trying to draw boundaries around the unboundable. Yet it seems to me that the notion of culture is only useful as long as it remains vague, and that once you try to define it too precisely you are in for a lot of trouble. Though the speakers have talked about the definition of language, they have not talked at all about the definition of culture, of how culture is to be bounded. Alfred Gell, for example, included social relationships and practical knowledge, of a kind that is presumably found in non-human species as well. In that case they, too, would have culture, which leaves me quite unclear about what the concept can possibly mean. But I think David Parkin comes to much the same conclusion, for if language can be non-verbal, then other species have language, and since Parkin equates language with culture, they must have culture too. But if both Gell and Parkin arrive at a rather similar point, it is only because, for both, the meaning of culture remains more or less implicit.
DAVID PIRIE I am puzzled that we should still be debating whether there can be languages that are not verbal. I have assumed for some time that music and mathematics are handy examples of systems that work pretty much in the way that language does, not, however, by patterning words but rather by patterning signs or symbols of other kinds. Indeed, Alfred Gell confused me with his palaeontological lesson, when he argued that the key move towards the human was the development of the lower limbs and of manual dexterity—as if these had nothing to do with any development of language. But if language can include the smile and other facial gestures, which I think is relevant in view of what Gell had to say about infant development, and if it can also involve manual gestures, I wonder whether we can any more assume that the key communicative skills of human beings are so exclusively verbal. Even accomplished speakers still find it necessary to resort to using the kinds of facial and manual gestures that I take to represent forms of communication arising much earlier—in both ontogeny and phylogeny—than verbal language. It is worth noting that all four of today’s speakers, each one a sophisticated master of verbal expression, have nevertheless made eloquent use of both facial and manual gesture: indeed, to pick up the various nuances of what has been going on in the debate one has been at some advantage in being able to look as well as just to listen.
ALFRED GELL If you allow that language can be any system of communication involving manual gestures, smiles or other kinds of expressive bodily movement, then we would have to grant language not only to chimpanzees but also to dogs, lions, and any number of other creatures. At that point it seems to me that the whole argument must degenerate: once we start asking whether, say, the smile is the essence of culture, or the fear grin the essence of culture for chimpanzees, there are no longer any boundaries for the discussion at all. To my mind, it is quite clear what language is. It is what children are taught when they learn to speak, and it is the phenomenon which is of interest to linguists. That, it seems to me, means verbal language. It does not mean pantomime or gestures or doing cartwheels. It means talking. If we can’t recognize language when we see it on a dark night, there’s no hope at all. It is of course perfectly true that language always comes in association with other things. But the phenomenon which enables you to recognize that language is there, mixed up with all the pantomime, is the use of words and the characteristic employment of linguistic coding, grammatical devices, and all the other contrivances by which language creates references to itself. I cannot see how one can possibly pursue an argument along the lines that language is just any kind of communication, nor do I think that music is a language. Who, after all, ever said anything in music?
KAY RICHARDSON If we suppose that patterning is the essence of language, and that meaning—rather than language—is the essence of culture, then the question of the relation between language and culture could be rephrased as one about how we can get from duality of patterning to meaning. Would anyone on the panel care to comment on this idea?
ALFRED GELL I am not sure whether duality of patterning as such can be regarded as intrinsic to language, because there exist linguistic systems, for example manual sign languages, which are nevertheless heavily iconic. What is characteristic of language, though, is abstract reference. I am not saying that language has to be verbal, but I do think that it has to be other than totally embedded in a flow of ongoing bodily movement.
KAY RICHARDSON In terms of the kinds of things that concern linguists, I am worried about privileging sign relations over structural relations in our characterization of the nature of language, and of ignoring questions of productivity.
ALFRED GELL There would be no productivity of language unless people had a continuous flow of new ideas. When I go on speaking, for ever and ever, it is not because I have an inexhaustible supply of language, it is because I have an inexhaustible supply of ideas! That’s the difference.
DAVID PARKIN On that point, I would agree with the previous speaker. It seems to me that theoretical linguistics has been guilty of privileging words outside of their social context. This is a danger to anthropology and to a lot of the things we stand for, because it is so easy to take a word or a string of words—an event of speech—out of context and to fit it to any situation you like. The point about the origin of language, as I said before, is that you cannot arbitrarily establish your cut-off point, as Gell seems to be saying. The origins of the capacity for language, assuming that it is acceptable to speak of such a thing, remain unknown, but we seem reasonably confident that it would have begun with non-acoustic forms of communication. I don’t think it is wrong to allow an elision of concerns with communication and concerns with language. These are labels. ‘Language’ is a label, it’s a term, ‘communication’ is another term. Let’s accept that, phenomenologically, language and communication merge: for the challenge is precisely to escape from these kinds of terminological dichotomies.
Perhaps I could take the opportunity here to attack the common identification of language with sequentiality. Consider the sentence, ‘I saw the girls crossing the street’. In terms of the patterning of words, there is of course a sequence here. T comes before ‘saw’, which comes before ‘the girls crossing the street’. But whereas the words are rendered sequentially, the concepts to which they refer exist simultaneously. There is a tension between the sequentiality of speech and the simultaneity of the concepts which are expressed by means of speech. And that is also the tension between the non-verbal and the verbal. Thus language is but an aspect of some more general form of communication.
FRANK MAGNE It seemed that Brian Moeran, in seconding the motion, was talking about language on the level of langue (in the sense of a shared system of signification). In proposing the motion, however, David Parkin seemed to be talking about language at the level of parole. It is important to know whether the proposers agree about what language is, or about the level on which they are talking about it. I address this comment more specifically to Parkin, since he dwelled on language in its rhetorical and discursive aspects. I believe that if we were to look at the language of everyday spoken discourse, then we would find that it is not shared. Thus the degree to which language is shared within a culture may be seen to be problematic. And the one thing you do not find in spoken rhetoric and discourse is an essence of culture. What you find, rather, are the fragmentations of indeterminacy. In that sense, spoken language does not create but rather problematizes culture. To put it another way, unspoken language is language taken-for-granted, spoken language is language problematized and—therefore—culture problematized.
DAVID PARKIN I think I would be in close agreement with what has just been said. I would certainly not take a view of culture as homogeneous, bounded, fixed or constant. At an explicit level, the discourse of culture may have more to do with misunderstandings than with shared understandings. I would certainly not take a view that depended principally upon the assumption of shared understandings. What we may have, however, is a polythetic recognition of there being misunderstandings which are linked to each other by virtue of previous arguments, or in other words a kind of argumentative sequence in which each contribution bears some kind of family resemblance to those preceding it. So, yes, there are misunderstandings but there are also sufficient common grounds for people to recognize where misunderstandings occur. The common recognition of misunderstanding seems to me to be what makes discourse possible between people who know they are talking the same language, in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. This is tantamount to cultural reflexivity: to culture (if you will permit the reification for a moment) constantly reflecting upon its own boundaries, its own constancy and its own cohesiveness.
CHRIS KNIGHT I referred earlier to Kendon’s work. What he did was to find a basis for distinguishing between primate call systems and language. Vervet monkeys, for example, have labels for denoting things. They have one sound for an eagle, one sound for a snake, one sound for a leopard. Thus they can name things in advance, and they agree on these names. However, they can only make the sound for leopard if a leopard is actually there. Likewise they can only make the sound for snake if a snake is actually there. 29 Now when the primatologists who discovered this played back a recording of the vervets’ sound for leopard, the monkeys looked in the forest for a leopard; and when they played back the sound for snake they all looked in the grass. If you think that this is all there is to language, then clearly, vervet monkeys have language. The crucial point, however, is that the words of human language are not labels for things, they are labels for concepts. And because concepts are independent of space and time, human language is able to create a symbolic domain which is—in a sense—immortal. How did that come about? Kendon’s argument is that the concepts have to come first. There have to be concepts to label before you can label them. Now non-human primates have concepts; they are not, however, shared, and are not communicable. Each individual invents its own concepts through direct experience of the world around it. But with the advent of verbal language these concepts, for the first time, could be communicated and shared. Now as Bickerton 30 points out, it is only to the extent that the expression of concepts becomes shared, as in pantomime, that you can begin to have labels for its constituent elements. To follow this argument through is to move to the conclusion that the essence of culture is—and I will tell you what I think it is—dance.
JAMES WEINER You (Chris Knight) have still not answered my earlier question. To what extent do you think these pantomimic gestures are any less arbitrary or less representational than words?
CHRIS KNIGHT I say they are exactly the same. I refuse to accept your distinction.
JAMES WEINER So how can you make any kind of evolutionary or developmental sequence from gesture to language?
CHRIS KNIGHT Archaeologists and palaeontologists are agreed that until you reach the symbolic domain of ritual and dance, then you certainly do not get language as we understand it! Alfred Gell is quite right on that point. It is indeed absurd to suggest that the australopithecines or Homo erectus could possibly have had language; we know they did not because they had no ritual and no dance—indeed there is no evidence for such things until around forty-five to fifty thousand years ago. But to support David Parkin, it is also clear from the record of the emergence of dance, pantomime, rituals and so on, that the symbolic domain arose as a totality. We have to treat that domain as a whole, rather than abstracting out its linguistic component.
IAN KEEN The last speaker’s argument relies on the notion of ‘concept’. According to Johnson-Laird, 31 a concept is a mental representation. It seems to me that a vervet monkey must have a mental representation in order to recognize a snake in the grass. If that argument is correct, then Knight’s notion of the concept is vacuous.
CHRIS KNIGHT But we do not find vervet monkeys dancing around pretending to be kangaroos!
ANDREW HOLDING If, in talking about language, we are pointing to something that is not in fact there, then this surely proves the point made by Chris Knight, that this is precisely what apes cannot do.
CHRIS KNIGHT If you were to see chimpanzees imitating, say, a snake
or an eagle, or some other animal, then they would be in a fantasy world, they would be lying collectively. Thus even if they were just dancing their activity would nevertheless be fully encompassed within the symbolic domain. It would be as if they had language. They would not need the verbal side of it, but once they had got that—and we are now talking about early hominids—their brains would be quite adequate to do the rest. The dimension of collectivism is thus crucial to the very existence of the symbolic domain.
CHRISTINA TOREN True, the concepts come first, but what language allows you is recursiveness, the ability to make attributions about attributions. This, then, is responsible for the enormous explosion of words, for productivity.
CHRIS KNIGHT Exactly. With language you can continually refer to your own doubts, and to those that are collectively felt.
TIM INGOLD As I understand it, the crucial problem here is one about how words acquire meaning, and about whether the difference between the way in which words and other kinds of gesture acquire meaning is really one of degree or of kind. We might say of the gesture that, in a sense, it delineates its own meaning. The question is whether this is also true of words. Are words fundamentally expressive, in that sense, or is meaning something that is attached externally to words—as is assumed by linguists who speak of words being attached to concepts? Chris Knight’s argument appears to envisage a quite basic difference in this respect: a quantum jump between the ways in which non-verbal gestures (such as the signs of non-human primates) acquire meaning and the ways in which the words of human language acquire meaning. Words, he tells us, are different because they are attached to concepts. Thus we are faced with a problem concerning the status of the concept itself, of the mental representation. Do we have to suppose that such representations are implicated in language at all? Do words actually take their meanings from their attachment to mental images that are mapped on to an otherwise meaningless world ‘out there’, or do they gather their meanings from the relational properties of the world itself, given the situational contexts of utterance and the histories of past usage?
JAMES WEINER There is very little evidence to suggest that we can distinguish between the word and the concept. This was the basis of Emile Beneviste’s 32 critique of Saussure. There is no objective way of showing that in the act of speech itself, we actually make any distinction between the word and the concept. For all practical purposes, the word is the concept. We learn about both at the same time, and as we do so, we have no way of practically distinguishing between them. It is only in retrospect, when we come to speculate on the nature of language itself, that we begin to separate word and concept and to theorize on the relationship between them.
The point that I made in my presentation was that it is only in the restricted context of what is going on among us here, in this room, that the various arguments that have been put forward can be judged true or false. Nothing that exists outside of this room is, in any practical sense, going to affect the outcome of the debate. Our appeals to theory or to particular ‘facts’ are speech acts whose sense is bound to the context of the here and now.
GEORGE WILMERS But we are also bringing in various paraphernalia from the outside.
JAMES WEINER Yes, and tomorrow we may bring in other things, or use the things we brought today in completely different ways.
CHRISTINA TOREN Underlying this proposition is a concern about the way we anthropologists do our work, about what precisely we are doing when we attempt to analyse the practices of other people. For the proposition implies that culture can be analysed as if it were a language. Yet we have spent years showing that this is just what cannot be done. There are whole domains of human behaviour which, when you come to analyse them, clearly turn out not to be language-like. What is important is to look at the interplay between those aspects that do have language-like properties and those that do not.
Of course, one idea that has always been very important in American cultural anthropology, by contrast to the British social anthropological tradition, is precisely that culture is immanent in language, that it comes already packaged in linguistic forms. But we know this is not the case: neither is language ready-made, nor does culture come ready-made with language. Concepts are themselves the objects of description; they are things we work at, and whether in language or in any other medium, they have to be built up or constituted over time. In this connection, Alfred Gell’s point about ontogeny is extraordinarily important. I strongly disagree with Brian Moeran and David Parkin, since both of them took an adult-centred perspective. If you try to understand how children come to acquire those notions that inform, say, the political economy or the rituals of the society in which they grow up, then you get a picture very different from the kind of seamless whole envisaged by the proposers. It is a picture full of shifts and discontinuities.
With respect to the neurophysiological arguments, I believe it is a mistake to infer, from looking at what people with lesions in particular areas of the brain can or cannot do, that each area is responsible for just that component of behaviour in which the sufferer experiences disability. The challenge is to understand what is happening in the whole brain, and indeed in the nervous system as it extends beyond the brain. The latest neurophysiological evidence suggests that even the simplest acts of perception involve the entire nervous system, from its most distal points across all regions of the cortex. So, for example, the registering of a smell does not happen in some particular, specialized ‘bit’ of olfactory cortex. It is rather the whole cortex that is activated. Moreover, for any individual the pattern of nerve firing changes over time.
What this means is that we are not only cultural but biologically cultural, and hence our prime task must be to understand the way in which history informs the processes of ontogenetic development whereby we come into being as cultural organisms. In this respect I am entirely in agreement with James Weiner when he says that he wants to break free from the terms of this debate. The proposition itself actually leads us astray.
GEORGE WILMERS I never meant to suggest that all brain functions are localized, and I am well aware that recent theories in neurophysiology hold that the entire brain is involved in many functions. This does not, however, allow you to ignore the evidence. If lesions in particular parts of the brain affect or have a tendency to affect the understanding and production of speech, and if lesions in other parts of the brain affect the understanding and appreciation of music, then this is evidence that the structures which enable one to understand music are inherently different from those which make possible the comprehension of speech.
CHRISTINA TOREN But you are leaving out ontogeny. Almost always, in studies of people with brain damage, the subjects are relatively mature. They are people who, before the damage occurred, had already acquired musical, linguistic and other abilities. This makes an enormous difference. Suppose instead that one were experimentally to take a batch of humans at birth, to damage different parts of their brains, and then to observe what happens. Then you might find out something interesting! Such an experiment is of course practically inconceivable; my point, however, is that from studies of people whose mature capacities have been impaired we cannot find the answers to our questions about how these capacities are formed in the first place.
DAVID PARKIN Let me respond to Christina Toren’s charge of adultcentredness. I think she has got it quite wrong. Of course we are taking an adult-centred view because, in addressing the proposition, we are dealing with some kind of relationship between language and culture. Now, if we were dealing only with, say, the possibilities of the emergence of adulthood, then that would be a different matter altogether. But our view is adult-centred because we are dealing with power, with authority, with the capacity of individuals who have reached adulthood to implant ideas about culture. Cultures are not self-generated.
CHRISTINA TOREN But children are people, not implants. And they build up or constitute their notions over time in the light of their experience.
DAVID PARKIN Do you then feel that adults are irrelevant to this process?
CHRISTINA TOREN Of course not. But what you discover by looking at the process of ontogeny is precisely how adults, as it were, deceive themselves, or in Bourdieu’s terms, how they become enchanted by their own practice. 33
DAVID PARKIN That’s possible, but it doesn’t show how they have the authority and the power to limit, prescribe and proscribe the directions which children take in their development of speech. And that’s critical. The world is an adult world, based upon the uneven distribution of power. Whatever the possible influences on children’s development may be, most of them are heavily weighted in favour of adults. This is a sad fact that bodes ill for the cause of children’s liberation.
CHRISTINA TOREN Of course they are weighted in favour of adults, but that doesn’t permit you to say that culture is what adults do…
DAVID PARKIN I never said that.
IAN KEEN But your view is nevertheless a very Eurocentric one. Among the Yolngu, an Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, Australia, children have their own autonomous culture and, within a certain age range, adults have very little control over it. From toddlers to pre-adolescents, these children are highly autonomous; indeed, in many Yolngu settlements this autonomy has been the cause of all kinds of social problems. I agree that adults impose constraints and draw boundaries, but there is, nevertheless, a lot of autonomy there.
DAVID PARKIN Surely, such autonomy may extend from the age of ten here, from the age of five there, from the age of one elsewhere. But there must be a limit.
MARYON MACDONALD I work as an anthropologist in the European Community, and I find little difference between what I have just been studying in Brussels and what I now hear in this debate. We should remember that considerable public funds have been devoted to the support of languages in Europe because there are people ‘out there’ who, as a matter of common sense, believe that language is the essence of culture. Similarly, there are others who argue that dance is the essence of culture. I make this point because no one in this debate has attempted to view the motion as an object of ethnographic interest. I agree with many of the points that have been made, for example, that we cannot necessarily turn to neurophysiology as providing an innocent representation of the world, though some aspects are doubtless more resistant to deconstruction than others. And the same goes for palaeontology and primatology. But the motion as proposed is not in principle resistant to deconstruction, and I think we should go ahead and treat it as something of ethnographic interest, situated historically, and to go on from there to examine our own assumptions.
BRIAN MOERAN I did in fact introduce an ethnographic example into my own presentation, referring to Japanese society and Zen Buddhism, where much emphasis is placed on the non-linguistic aspects of enlightenment. There is a great argument, the details of which need not detain us, concerning the question of whether Japanese people are—shall we say—‘non-linguistic’. The Japanese are inclined to set themselves off against ‘logocentric’ Westerners in these terms, yet at the same time they have major schools and educational institutions which rely totally on language and the use of the written word, and which are seen as laying the foundations for success in life. There is clearly a paradox here. Part of the problem is that the Japanese are trying, at one and the same time, both to set themselves off against Westerners, and yet to project themselves as belonging to an advanced industrialized society. So they put forward the notion that the essence of Japanese culture is non-linguistic as a kind of counter-Orientalism, in order to resist the Orientalism projected by the West. My point is just to show that the claim to a non-linguistic essence is grounded in a cultural discourse that is itself couched in the medium of language.
PAUL BAXTER I would like to draw attention to the situation of people with severe hearing impairments. For centuries, certainly in Europe, such people have been culturally and socially marginalized. In the first decades of this century there was a strong movement, which actually began here in Manchester, to overcome this by teaching the deaf to speak, and thereby to promote their integration into society and culture. For many this worked. But in last twenty years or so, particularly in America, the deaf have been saying ‘We do not want this; we have a language, which is a sign language but not a vocal language, and it has as much of a right to exist as any other. We have been culturally colonized and, as a sign now of our own cultural integrity, our language must be recognized as standing alongside and on a par with all other languages.’ For these people, at least, the language itself has come to be the very essence of what they describe as their own culture.
IAN KEEN Let me restate my point: that what is important about language has been lost because the debate has been so much about how to put boundaries around it. What, unfortunately, we have not discussed here is the importance of language in the constitution of praxis, although the matter was touched upon in relation to the question of mathematics and music.
DAVID PIRIE One speaker (Alfred Gell) saw fit to say that Dutch painters were responsible for the way in which modern man sees the world, as though this was the only kind of vision that really matters. I wonder whether this is an example of how language can come before ways of conceptualizing.
TIM INGOLD Your point, as I understand it, is that there may be a gender aspect to our comprehension of what language is.
VALRETER THOMPSON I think it is important, too, to be aware of the way language has been used as an instrument of power in the field of education—for example, to disadvantage black people in schools and universities.
TIM INGOLD The key terms, language and culture, are of course caught up in a system of power relations. We have heard about power relations between parents and children, between men and women and between educators and educated. Moreover. as we well know, the word ‘culture’ is situated in the nexus of power relations between Western nations and colonized peoples. It is important to recognize that both ‘language’ and ‘culture’ subsist within relations of this kind.
DAVID PARKIN I want in summing up to make two main points. First, it is quite true that we have focused more on language than on culture. We tend to evade the question of the definition of culture because we are perpetually worried that if we examine it too closely it will slip away from us and we will be left without a subject matter. One of these days we will have to face this problem; meanwhile the concept of language calls up such a rich web of metaphoric connotations that however long we go on talking about it, we can be confident that it will never disappear. Now it seems that there are two general approaches to thinking about what language is. One takes a broad view of language as having to do with symbolic communication. Some concern was expressed about this, as though by broadening out our notion of language in this way we might lose sight of something essential, something so well refined by successive generations of linguists. I do not accept that concern: indeed, I think that as anthropologists we should be forever deconstructing and recasting our concepts, including that of language. The second view of language is the narrow one, ‘language-as-we-conventionally-know-it’, meaning by that, the kind of language I am using now but presumably without hands, without the smile, without the expressive modulations of voice and gesture. It is precisely this narrow view of language, as consisting of grammatically acceptable sentences totally divorced from the social context of utterance, that has caused so much confusion in theoretical linguistics, and it is surely antithetical to the spirit of anthropology.
My second general point is: why this motion? Indeed, we should situate ourselves historically in terms of our intellectual discipline, and I wonder whether the proposition, ‘language is the essence of culture’, is not really a polite or evasive rendering of an altogether different proposition, which is that language essentializes culture. This is often what is really at issue—the essentialization of a whole range of activities through the privileging of language which, for this reason, appears to become so important to us in modern society. I cannot dissociate the use of language from power; I cannot dissociate its evolution from the organization of human (or hominid) groups, and I cannot divorce it from the fact that all such groups have evolved through struggle. So to me language emerges from struggle even as cultures defend themselves, advance themselves, and achieve their distinctiveness. As I have said before, language and culture are indissolubly involved in each other, and I don’t feel at all ashamed to advocate that broad proposition.
ALFRED GELL I would like to return to Richard Werbner’s point, that there seems to be some difference between James Weiner and myself on why the motion should be rejected. First of all, both logically correct and fallacious arguments can be adduced to support a conclusion which is none the less true. That is, true consequences can be derived from false premisses as well as from true ones. So on its own, the mere fact that we might adduce different arguments to back up the same conclusion does not make the truth of our conclusion any less likely. But I do not in fact believe that there is such a profound difference between us. I do not see how anyone could defend the idea of anything, like language, being the essence of anything else, like culture. I agree entirely with what James Weiner said on these points, and I would have made them myself had I not known he was going to do so.
What I tried to do, however, was to look at the kinds of lower-level generalizations from which the idea of a language-essence might conceivably have been distilled, and to show that these generalizations do not stand up to critical scrutiny. I do not think that we can define language once and for all in the context of a debate such as this, nevertheless I see no reason to opt for the ultrainclusive definition of language which has been advocated by some people here, simply because it encompasses everything. After all, humans really do produce verbal utterances, and there really are areas of the brain which are demonstrably involved in the production and comprehension of speech and which, if interfered with, cause various kinds of aphasia. Moreover, the asymmetry between the two hemispheres of the brain is not difficult to demonstrate experimentally, and has even been established cross-culturally—so we know it is not just members of our own culture who are subject to this particular pattern. Thus there is abundant evidence for the existence of something which, although we may not be able to define it precisely, is manifestly focused around sentential logic, the creation of discourse, and so forth. It is sufficiently readily observable not really to require much by way of further definition.
It is clear, too, that it does not constitute an essence—not. at least, an essence of culture. Let us say that the essence of Euclidean geometry is the logic of proof. Although this logic does not constitute a theorem in itself, its application in the process of proof is surely what geometry is all about—it’s the whole purpose of the exercise. Now if language were an essence of human culture, then one should be able to identify it in the same sort of way: as providing a means for framing discourse in the form of logically connected sentences, and for the demonstration of propositions through reasoned verbal argument. And, as such, it would have to be an essence not just of what has been going on amongst us here, but of human life everywhere. Yet nobody could possibly imagine that our debate here is anything other than a highly specialized exercise in academic discourse. The idea that we should project the format of the academic debate as a model for what goes on generally in human life and experience seems to me utterly preposterous. Language may be the essence of academic debate, much as the logic of proof is the essence of geometry; but language is not the essence of culture.
BRIAN MOERAN I am not sure that our positions are so different. To some extent the recasting of the motion in phylogenetic terms, in terms of language standing at the origin of culture, has sidestepped the issue. This is not what we were arguing at all. We were saying that language and culture are part and parcel of each other, and we tried to focus on social aspects of language-in-culture. As David Parkin said, the constraints of language are not fixed or given. There are forces that produce them, that modify them and that transform them in the course of actual communication. So language is not a monolithic system but a process that is continually going on. And this is the sense in which it may be said to constitute the essence of culture.
JAMES WEINER My concern was to expose many of the ideas that remain implicit in our view of what language is, for example that it provides a vehicle for the external expression of internal mental states, that speaking is voluntary activity which is all the time under conscious control, that it is intrinsically creative, that it is something that is always moving from the ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’. And while we do nowadays make a point of stressing that the ultimate arbiter of language is always social, we nevertheless continue to read back into the individual the source of language. My argument, then, was against logocentrism. Logocentrism is not just a matter of seeing everything as a form of language or as a form of representation. It is rather a matter of seeing the individual, the knowing subject, as having independent access to a total picture of his or her world. But the fact is that whenever we focus our attention on something, something else drops out of the field of view. When the Yolngu of Arnhem Land (to whom Ian Keen referred in his comment) consciously assert that children are autonomous, by the same token they are rendering more problematic the fact of parental control over them. For all that I agree with much of what she said, to speak—as did Christina Toren—of children voluntaristically constituting their own world is only to make problematic the extent to which children are, in a very real sense, reproducing what they have learned from their parents.
And so we cannot talk about what is internal to the subject independently of that subject’s positioning in a field of external relations: that is, we must consider the subject in a context of intersubjectivity. In much of what has been said today, there is still a discernible attempt to hold on to the notion that the subject is ontologically prior to his or her relations, allowing for a one-way movement from subject to knowledge to concept to expression. It is against that very logocentric (and Eurocentric) notion that I was arguing.