Key Debates in Anthropology Edited by Tim Ingold General introduction Tim Ingold the nature of anthropological theory

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Part II
The debate

EDWARD SCHIEFFELIN It appears to me that both the proponents and the opponents of the motion were vigorously attempting to reject a now outmoded stereotype of the social construction of reality, one that is characterized by a strong element of cognitivism and Cartesian dualism. In its place we heard a call for the centrality of the notions of environment, of participation, of action as creative of the world in which we live. So how do the two sides differ in this debate?

NIGEL RAPPORT I agree that there was no great difference between the sides. I felt that the opposers of the motion were constructing a false dichotomy that does not really relate to the concept of culture that was being put forward by the proposers. For example, the distinction crucial to Tim Ingold’s argument, between construction and engagement, is an invalid one. No one would argue for a passive, non-interactive notion of construction. Or consider Paul Richards’ starting point, the supposed ‘appalling arrogance’ of assuming the existence of blueprints situated outside time. No one would really argue for a construction thus detached from time and change. Indeed, the arguments of the opposition could be taken as prime instantiations of the notion, which Geertz borrowed from Weber, that we are suspended in webs of significance of our own construction. I therefore support the motion.

TAMARA DRAGADZE I think the argument is not so much about the notion of culture as it is about determinism. Can we in anthropology espouse cultural determinism or any other kind of determinism? Or can there be no determinism? The debate has more to do with these questions than with the actual concepts—nature, culture, human worlds and so on.

TIM INGOLD There is a real difference between what I and Wendy James were proposing. She referred on several occasions to ‘mere organisms’, and to human beings as ‘body plus’—as though their personhood somehow existed outside, over and above, or beyond their organic being. This is a view that I would reject, as I believe it is founded on a very inadequate notion (though one that is prevalent in social anthropology) of what an organism, human or otherwise, actually is. This misconception is shared by many biologists too: the very idea that cultural or social experience is something that can be ‘added on’ implies the reduction of the organism to (putting it crudely) that which we are ‘born with’, thus sidestepping the whole biological process of development. I, for one, do not think we can regard persons as in any way ‘above’ organisms, and would suggest that the phrase ‘mere organism’ is what signals the real difference between Wendy James’s view and my own. As for Geertz and his ‘webs of significance’, this also reinforces the point that there really is a difference between us. I find this idea of human beings being suspended in webs of significance quite unacceptable because it puts us humans in a kind of free-floating world in which we are ascribing significance to things ‘out there’. Behind this notion is the premiss that meaning is actually disembodied. For if that were not the case, then meaning would become coterminous with reality itself. And if meaning is coterminous with reality, then the concept of meaning itself becomes redundant.

ROLAND LITTLEWOOD I also think that there are significant differences between the two sides, and I would like to ask Tim Ingold a question. He keeps making a distinction between the individual or the organism and the environment: what, then, is the quality of the knowledge of that distinction? Where is the distinction located? It seems to me that he is attacking the ‘children’s building blocks’ model of construction, as though we had been claiming that it amounts to an assembly, into some kind of structure, of blocks that pre-exist in reality. But we were claiming nothing of the sort, for there are still problems with the nature of these blocks. Indeed, Tim Ingold’s position seems very close to ours, so perhaps we could push him a little further. Where is the distinction between these things that are supposed to be interacting: organism and environment? What sort of distinction is it? Is it, as I was arguing, a distinction in human knowledge? It sounded to me as though, for Ingold, it is a distinction that exists ‘out there’, independently of our apperception.

TIM INGOLD I am thinking about the relationship between the organism and the environment in a dialectical way such that each constitutes the other: that is to say, the coming-into-being or development of the organism is itself the development of an environment for that organism. Thus I am rejecting the idea, which is embodied in a good deal of ecological discourse (in the notion of evolutionary adaptation, for example), that environments can actually be specified independently of the organisms filling them, which then have to adapt to those given environmental constraints. On the contrary, it seems to me that organisms, through their development and through their activities, constitute their environments; but in a sense environments constitute organisms too because, the organism (or human being, as one kind of organism) through its development embodies its own perceptual experience of involvement with the world. Hence, the developing interaction across the interface between organism and environment is part of the process by which the organism, the human being, becomes constituted as the kind of organism or human being it is. I am thinking in terms of a dialectical relationship rather than a fixed dualism in which organism and environment can be independently specified and then set to work to interact.

EDWARD SCHIEFFELIN I can see two perfect agreements with that: one is the point that Geertz makes in his article on ‘The impact of the concept of culture on the concept of man’ 33 ; the other is exactly the sort of process that Peter Berger discusses in the first three chapters of The sacred canopy. 34 We have no argument with either of these.

MARILYN STRATHERN It is quite clear that as a metaphor, ‘construction’ has had its day. No one appreciates the metaphor of a building or a house. Indeed, if the two sides were to be said to agree on anything, it is that each has exposed the other’s argument as a construction; and from that follows a question. I was rather inspired by Paul Richards’ reference to the skill or clumsiness with which one moves. Whether skilfully or clumsily, however, one does still move; whether in comfort or discomfort, one still dwells. The question I would like to put to the opposition is this: in what sense do they move with or dwell with the proposal?

PAUL RICHARDS I think we could write music together if we tried! What I found inspiring in Jane Guyer’s article (see Note 26) was the idea that opposition does not always have to be oppositional; it can also be syncopational—different levels of reality can move with each other, overlapping in complex ways, and out of that can come

a sense of well-being. Perhaps we are just reinventing a kind of functionalism here. But what most outrages me about culture theory in modern anthropology is its inability to grasp music and dance. I have recently been reading the work of Lévi-Strauss, and this, to me, represents all that is wrong with the ‘symbolic decoding’ approach to musical or choreographic material. It is exactly the opposite of what Gurney tries to do in his poetry, which is to convey the sense that the meaning in music comes out of the doing. It is difficult to capture that sense within the format of a debate, because the very terms in which any debate is set up are timeless and oppositional.

MARILYN STRATHERN But music is never in error. In what sense do you find the arguments that you are opposing to be in error?

PAUL RICHARDS What I object to in the idea of human worlds beingculturally constructed is that it does not allow space for inquiryinto the flow of dwelling, of the life of persons—human organisms—in their environment. There is something deflationary about the way we use the terms ‘organism’ and ‘environment’, these terms come to us in a tainted form, as if to show any great enthusiasm for them is already halfway to advocating a vulgar genetic or environmental determinism. We need to find a way of getting into this kind of material that still holds the gains of modern culture theory. Guyer, however, has taken us in the right direction by speaking of the sense of well-being that comes out of improvisation when people are doing their own things in their own ways and yet all hanging together. We never really know why some things do hang together whilst other things are such an appalling mess. But there are now beginning to be ethnographies of performance that grasp some of these issues—an example in the musicological literature is Ruth Stone’s book on Kpelle music performance, Let the inside be sweet, 35 in which Kpelle musicians themselves show how they achieve this sense of well-being when things hold together and make sense, and also how things can go so badly wrong that one can only stop and start all over again. But the reason why I quoted from Gurney is simply that he is so good at conveying the sense of well-being that comes from hard physical work: recall how he admired the hedger as being a greater musician than himself because he was not hurried, he worked—as a fine musician plays—with balance and poise. If only we could achieve that same balance in our own theoretical debates!

RICHARD FARDON Both sides, I presume, share problems with the idea of worlds, and also with the idea of construction, but let us put these to one side for the moment. The thesis before us is that ‘Human worlds are culturally constructed’. One problem is to know exactly how the humans and the cultures are supposed to relate to one another in that formulation. If I were to turn it around and say, ‘cultural worlds are constructed by humans’, would anybody on either side have any problem?

WENDY JAMES We would have no problem. But I would like to address a specific question about music to Paul Richards. He has given us a very vivid and moving picture of the rhythmic aspects of performance in which we should immerse ourselves in our ethnography. What I miss, however, both in his presentation and in that of Tim Ingold, is substantive ethnographic material. A person from Brazil surely does not automatically enjoy the rhythms of Japanese music. If that is so, how can one dispense with the notion that there are culturally constructed musical traditions, as for example between Brazil and Japan?

TIM INGOLD I have no problem with the idea that people from different backgrounds resonate to different kinds of music, but I do have a problem with the idea that this has something to do with ‘culture’, if that ‘culture’ is opposed to anything else. In other words, developing some kind of dance technique, or learning to play the piano, or responding to one kind of music rather than another, comes by way of experience in an environment. Obviously children learn as they grow up. The problem comes when we start thinking of that learning process not as one through which experienced relationships are incorporated into the person’s very being, into his or her self (which is how I think musical sensibilities are acquired), but as one in which layers are added on from above. I want to think of the development of the human being as a process in which, right from the start, the child is immersed in a world, in a set of experiences which, through perception, are enfolded into his or her own person.

WENDY JAMES We have some idea of how you want to see the development of the child. But let us take the question of music a little further. Paul Richards was describing his efforts, over thirty years, to practise Bach. Now you do not simply develop into the music of Bach, into its rhythm. You have it before you on a sheet of printed paper which has been replicated over several centuries. Without that ‘high culture’ tradition of music, without the ‘construction’ of Bach’s own music that has been passed on historically and which you learn not by immersion but by accepting the guidance of a teacher, you would not enjoy Bach. My point is that there is an educational element in learning as it takes place. Children do not simply absorb learning. They are taught to pick up forms which are highly structured and sophisticated—the structuring has taken place outside them and is handed down to them historically. I would have thought it very difficult to present what is going on here as a mutually constitutive process between organism and environment. To see it in such terms would indeed amount to a new kind of functionalism, in which there is no starting point, no ending point, and no problem; everything appears to affect everything else in an unproblematic way. To me, learning Bach is a highly problematic matter for a child.

PAUL RICH ARDS But you do not learn Bach by decoding the notes on paper and then reconstructing them into the musical performance. The notes are presumably a representation of what Bach heard in his inner ear, and you can only start to play Bach when you have sufficiently absorbed the notes to be able to begin to get the music out of the violin. And that involves an interaction between the player and the musical instrument.

WENDY JAMES That may be true of the performance. But ‘Bach’ exists outside the succession of individual performances.

PAUL RICH ARDS This is my problem with the notion of construction. We could find other words, like doing, with which I have no problem, and if Richard Fardon would rephrase the proposition to state that cultural worlds are humanly done, then I would raise no objection. But the term ‘construction’ seems to me to privilege the blueprint, or the piece of music as it is represented by notation on the printed sheet. This is then prioritized as if it had an existence outside time and is then brought into time through performance. That is the metaphor—and I am not talking specifically about music.

WENDY JAMES But whose metaphor? We are having metaphors put into our mouths that we did not originate, and which represent an obsolete sociology with which we have never been associated. We do not write in that way, we do not teach in that way, nor have we invoked the idea of a timeless blueprint in anything we have said in this debate.

PAUL RICHARDS Do you admit that there is no blueprint, that no symbolic decoding is going on?

WENDY JAMES There are specific blueprints, of course, not just of individual pieces of music but of entire musical traditions. But such blueprints certainly do not stand out of time, they are produced within historical time.

ALISON NEWBY I would like to respond to Wendy James’s claim that ‘Bach’ exists on paper, in a fixed form that is handed down over the centuries. Now there are many different traditions of how to play a piece of Bach, or indeed of any other composer. The performance of a piece by a Russian composer, for example, will not be the same in Russia as it is in this country. There is a certain sense in which people’s interactions with their environments do affect the way they play. Someone may teach you to play a piece in a particular way, but even within particular cultures there are differences in the manner in which the music is heard. Thus we do not know how Bach heard his own music, or what was important for him in his environment and his setting, but a glance at the history of performance reveals everything from Leopold Stokowski’s use of a huge orchestra, that he clearly felt to be appropriate in his environment, to those who insist on the authenticity of using original instruments. So one cannot simply conclude that what is written down on the page is what you hear: the relation is much more complex than that. The way you play, and the way you feel the music, will be rooted in your own experience, your own interaction with the environment. I think this leads to the point Paul Richards was making.

WENDY JAMES We would not deny the truth of what you say. But we are anxious not to forget that the differences in this musical tradition in place and time, which represent local variations and recreations, are historical phenomena that are nevertheless under-written by a more fundamental continuity. The child, in school, is actually taught not only about such-and-such a piece of music and how it is to be played now, but also about how it might have been played in the past. You are able to know about the variations in the performance of a given piece of music around the world, because this is what you have learned. And such learning forms part of an educational tradition within which you have been brought up.

ALISON NEWBY I only know how people play in other parts of the world because there has been a kind of explosion, in recent times, in ways of knowing about other people. I agree that it is nowadays more difficult to separate what people do of themselves from what they do because it has been taught to them. But anyone with experience of musical performance knows that every performance is unique in some way, albeit framed within the parameters of a cultural tradition.

EDWARD SCHIEFFELIN The peculiarity of performance derives from its emergent qualities. With every culture, every orchestra, every occasion, the performance is a little different because it involves the emergence of qualities which are, in some respects, above and beyond what is on the written page or in the taught tradition; but these qualities of the performance, in turn, become part of that tradition and feed into it. That is how the tradition remains alive. Some traditions attempt to restrict or limit performance, but if the tradition ever remains alive it is because the performances themselves, in some important, non-trivial way, feed back into the way this is carried on. You cannot easily learn to play music from reading a book: you need a teacher, and you have to get the feel of an instrument. The whole process of playing Bach is exceptionally complex; what goes on in your head, what is on the printed page, your knowledge of history (that Bach wore a wig, had twenty-one children and so on)—all of this may indeed contribute to how you play the music. But the music that comes out, as performance, is neither separable from the tradition of which it forms a part nor wholly reducible to it either. This is a crucial point about performance that is easily forgotten: it not only continues but also builds the tradition.

ANDREW HOLDING We seem to be obsessed at the moment with what we (as anthropologists) want, and unconcerned about what people might say they want. Speakers on both sides of this debate have used metaphors from here to bring out what they want to say, but I would be interested to find out how the people themselves, whose world or worlds we are talking about, would deal with the issue. Let me go back to the metaphor, drawn by Tim Ingold, of the hunter-gatherer and the house. I wonder how the hunter-gatherer would describe the house. Would he go about it in the same way that the speakers have done, in trying to give meaning to the title of this debate? If there is a similarity here, and given the practical impossibility of spelling out the whole process on every occasion, would it not be simpler to use the term ‘culture’ to describe the way in which meaning is made in the world?

TIM INGOLD I believe that there are basic similarities in the ways people experience their environments. Nevertheless, a distinction is habitually made between the natural and the artificial environment. and it is often said that we. urban dwellers live in an environment that is largely artificial or ‘built’, whereas the hunter-gatherer lives in an environment that is largely natural or ‘unbuilt’, and that this fundamentally affects the way the world is perceived. 36 Now in a built environment people live in houses, which we generally class as artefacts, and an artefact—as defined within the tradition of Western thought—is a portion of the physical world that has been modified through the imposition of cultural design. This definition of the artefact, however, only makes sense as long as we think of the world as an external, physical reality that can be modified or transformed in this way. But that is not how the world, or portions of it, becomes an environment for people. Whether we are talking about houses, shops and streets for the urban dweller or features of the landscape in which the hunter-gatherer regularly moves around in the course of normal subsistence activities, it is through their incorporation into patterns of everyday practical activity that they become components of an experienced environment. In a sense, these features become drawn into the people themselves, just as the latter, in their activities, inscribe themselves into the objects of their surroundings. There is therefore no complete separation of person and environment; and in this respect it makes no difference whether we are dealing with something that is supposedly artificial or something that is supposedly natural. The natural-artificial distinction has no purchase when we think of relations between people and their environments in these terms. The difficulty is that for us, caught up as we are in so-called ‘Western discourse’, this way of experiencing the environment is hard to describe. We lack the terms for it. Perhaps you will then say: ‘If that is indeed the way people experience the world, and granted that experience differs for people in different times and places, why should we not just call this way of experiencing “culture”?’ One reason why I find this difficult to accept is that culture is an ‘entity’ term. Anthropologists still tend to speak of this culture as against that culture…

WENDY JAMES No they do not!

TIM INGOLD But they do, and as long as they do, they are tying culture up into entities and giving it a closure which is quite inappropriate when what we are in fact dealing with is continuous process.

ROLAND LITTLEWOOD I feel that our opponents are paying less and less attention to what we have argued. They have reified culture, despite our insistence that the motion in no way demands a notion

of culture as an entity, or even as an area. We are rather talking about procedures. This gives me an opportunity to come back to a question that I have already asked of Tim Ingold, but which I do not think he has adequately answered. It concerns the distinction between the individual and the environment. He said earlier that they dialectically constitute one another, and he has now gone on to explain that the individual is somehow ‘comprehended’ in the environment. This is the individual whom we presumably identify with ourselves as being human. My original question, which I would like to ask again, is this: where is the distinction between the individual and the environment located? How can it be located anywhere except in our words and in our perceptions? One moment it is said that the two ‘constitute’ one another, the next moment they are spoken of as separate entities. Surely, this is a cultural construction. If not, what?

PNINA WERBNER Tim Ingold’s argument focuses on the individual, and indeed depends on this focus. The environment can be anything: cultural, historical, biological, physical. Everything is environment, the continual focus remains on the individual as interactor. So of course, under the circumstances, the distinctions between culture and nature, and its corollaries, become nonsensical. But once the environment is seen to be constraining in a cultural sense, once we see teaching in a cultural sense, moving in a historical sense, then what becomes of the individual? Maybe culture is reified, but this does not mean that the individual exists on his own.

ELIZABETH TONKIN Let me go back to Wendy James’s point that people are taught, and learn, to play Bach through a kind of transmission process. Many of us are teachers and we have all had the experience of being taught, and we know that what is problematic about teaching—contrary to the notions that either people are receptacles into which information can simply be poured or that if you hit them hard enough it will somehow sink in—is that something happens, about which we know and understand very little, whereby people either do or do not ‘click’. It is almost impossible to forecast whether people will click, or how they will do it. The process is a very complex one and has to do with (for want of a better term) cognition. But somewhere along the line there has to be an active cognitive processor which either does something with what comes in by way of socially mediated experience, or does not. It is cultural if you will, but clearly in another fundamental sense it is material.

ROY ELLEN L L EN N There has been some dispute between the two sides of this debate, at least between Wendy James and Paul Richards, concerning the meaning of ‘construction’. Paul Richards referred, in his talk, to the title of the book (by Berger and Luckmann), The social construction of reality. Tim Ingold has, in his earlier writing, strongly criticized the use of conceptual hybrids such as ‘sociocultural’, and has insisted on maintaining a clear conceptual separation between the social and the cultural. I wonder, therefore, whether the social construction of reality is quite the same as its cultural construction.

PAUL RICHARDS I am not concerned about how the term ‘construction’ is qualified, it was to the term itself that I was objecting. My problem is epitomized in the simple question: how do you teach someone to ride a bicycle? How, when a performance has gone wrong, do you encourage people, enable people, empower people to put it back together again? How do they put it back together again? This is the central dilemma for those of us who have tried to carry out ethnographic work in, say, contemporary Africa, where life is disrupted by drought, famine and war. My fear is that ‘construction’ is not really helpful in these contexts. We do not know how people click, nor how they learn. We do not know how to create the conditions for that sense of well-being that allows the dance to move forward, for life to proceed in a healthy, syncopated way. Perhaps it is impossible to know these things; perhaps anthropology has nothing to contribute in this direction. However, it does seem to me that we have rather neglected these kinds of questions. My emphasis on music was not intended to make the perfect musical performance into a metaphor for social life. What I am interested in, and what I have learned from music, is the crucial importance of mistakes. When you are practising the violin in the privacy of your own home, you can stop as many times as you like and sort out the mistakes. But when you are in the midst of a performance, as every musician knows, you have to keep going—you have to develop techniques for coping when the performance goes wrong. It seems to me that the notion of cultural construction tends to emphasize what happens when things are going right, according to the programme, the notes, or the blueprint, however much we may want to situate the latter in history. That explains things when they are working well; what we do not know enough about is how people cope and pull through when things fall apart.

TIM INGOLD Let me first make it clear that in focusing on human-environment relations, I do not consider the human being to be a self-contained, individual isolate which then interacts with his or her surroundings. On the contrary, to the extent that humans are persons, caught up from the start in an intersubjective, meaningful world of involvement with other people, they are also social beings. What I do reject, however, is the idea that the level of this involvement, whether it be called social or cultural, can be separated out from, and placed hierarchically above, the level on which human beings, as organisms, relate to other, non-human components of their environments. The only way in which that kind of separation can be established is by drawing a line between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, which is itself founded on an assumption of human uniqueness that is essentially Cartesian and that cannot, I think, be sustained. Of course, the real villains in this debate, in opposition to whom both sides find common cause, and with whom we have been careful to avoid any hint of collusion, are—let us say—certain biologists. You could call them sociobiologists, except that when you try to argue with them, they are inclined to adopt the same tactics as those used by the proposers of the motion for this debate, claiming to have long since discarded (if indeed they ever held) the premisses and presumptions that opponents attribute to them, even when those premisses and presumptions are constitutive of the very intellectual tradition to which they claim allegiance. It has been observed—in the context of the previous debate on the concept of society—that the classic attempt of Durkheim to capture the essence of what it means to be human, in a field of relationships with other humans, eventually backfired, on account of the fact that at the time of writing, he found it imperative to set up his theory as a counter to the individualism of such liberal philosophers of society as Herbert Spencer. In opposition to the aggregate of self-contained individuals, Durkheim posited the collective consciousness formed through their interpenetration, ‘society-as-a-whole’, and so on. We now find that this very opposition, between individual and society, prevents us from getting a proper grip on the nature of relatedness. We have something of the same problem here, because ‘out there’ are some sociobiologists (whether or not they have disowned this label) who have an extremely impoverished view of what an organism is, and who are using quite blatant constructionist metaphors (such as that of the ‘genetic programme’) to describe the nature of organic existence. In the oppositional context of anthropology’s stance against sociobiology (just as in the context of Durkheim’s stance against Spencerian individualism), the conception of cultural construction against which Paul Richards and I have been arguing is itself reproduced. 37 In other words, a version of cultural constructionism with which neither side in this debate would agree is being perpetuated through its opposition to an equally unsatisfactory biogenetic determinism. This brings me back to a question that one speaker [Tamara Dragadze] raised some time ago: is not the real issue one about determinism? If there is one point that I really want to stress, it is that the world is not a determined state of affairs but a ‘going on’, which is constantly being furthered by agents within it. And these agents are not only human, but include other organisms as well. The world is not ‘there’, for us or anybody else to represent or to fail to represent; the world is coming into being through our activities. Of course other people are part of our world, just as much as is the non-human environment; but we cannot exclusively privilege us human beings with this world-producing effort—for the world is coming into being through the activities of all living agencies. At the root of the argument, then, is a question about our understanding of human uniqueness. And I think there really is, on that ground, a difference between what I and Paul Richards have been saying, and the arguments of the proposers.

WENDY JAMES I think it will be clear that there is a great deal of sympathy underlying our exchanges. We would fully accept Tim Ingold’s suggestion that our focus of study should include the person as a centre of experience, and as an agent. Likewise, we are unanimous in rejecting a rather rigid and artificial notion of culture as a thing, a culture, going into the plural, which in my opening remarks I did suggest we should drop. There are other points of sympathetic contact as well, such as the concern with music, with the development of the physical capacities of the person, with the kinds of questions that arise if we ask how people can learn to do things like ride bicycles (when they have already, presumably, invented the wheel). I particularly sympathize, too, with what Paul Richards had to say about the failure of older anthropological models and paradigms to deal with current crises such as are being experienced in Africa, with famine, disease, war and death, on a scale with which it seems almost impossible to deal analytically. Of course there are many students in the field at this moment, trying to cope as researchers with the problems of making sense of these situations, and to come up with interpretations and analyses that could be of humane use and practical help. In the situation of a refugee camp or a settlement scheme, or a front-line relief centre such as those run by Medecins sans Frontières in the middle of a war in Africa, I would have thought that the notion of construction could be of some help, and I would like to argue for its retention.

There are several levels on which we can hold on to it. At the lowest level we may be dealing with an assortment of people who have lost their motives, their money and their connection with a homeland, people who are actually trying to rebuild a new community, sometimes physically, carrying building materials to construct their houses. The notion of the reconstruction of community is one which would resonate not only with what is in the minds of the researcher, the relief agency and the government of the country concerned, but also with what the people themselves think they are doing. They may see themselves as rebuilding their families, their homeland, and so on. Here the idea of rebuilding resonates with the actions that people themselves are actually engaged in. At higher levels, too, the notion of construction is surely relevant. It operates at a collective level on which this debate has scarcely touched. In my opening remarks I did mention the level of the state, which constructs (for example) economic policy, roads, legal and political institutions, and prisons. A notion of cultural construction, if taken seriously, should be carried through to this collective level. The model proposed by Tim Ingold in particular, of the evolving relations between the human being qua organism and the environment, clearly does have its centre of gravity in the single being rather than on the collective level of—for example—the state, town council, university, or even household. Now it is perfectly true that, perhaps in the way anthropology has been taught, many assumptions have become fossilized about the solidity and autonomy of collective phenomena. These have possibly weighed too heavily on us and obscured areas in which this debate could move forward. Nevertheless, the collective level exists, there are ways of talking about the state and of collective cultural phenomena, such as musical or dance traditions, which do not rest on naïve notions of the culture, conceived as an entity, somehow detached from lived reality, lived experience.

Tim Ingold has accused me of being too scornful in my reference to ‘mere organisms’. But I have heard women complain, after being in the maternity hospital, ‘I was treated just like an organism’; they have felt that their very personhood has been abused or insulted. And of course this has now become a collective cry, that women should be allowed to give birth at home, in a more human and personal environment, and not reduced to mere bodies on hospital beds. This brings me back to another point that I made in my initial remarks: that an organism does not, in itself, have rights. In a sense, that is what lies behind the complaint of women who say that they had been treated as mere organisms in the context of giving birth, when they were not even ill. Their rights and their self-respect, as persons, have been infringed, neglected. Thus the notion of personhood, as I suggested, is not self-evident. It has to be defined. And in very many cases, that definition has to be struggled for. This reminds us about the making of boundaries. Our opponents have been rather keen on setting up dichotomous boundaries and attributing them in some cases to us, but in other cases setting them up for the purposes of their own argument: for example between the social and the cultural, and between perception and imagination. Boundaries of this kind do not seem to be regarded by our opponents as at all problematic. But as Roland Littlewood has asked, where is the boundary between the person-organism and the environment? You will recall his opening remarks, in which he suggested that we are ourselves because we are descended from the survivors of previous epidemics; we are artefacts, in that sense, rather than agents—artefacts of crises external to us.

I would like to conclude by picking up on the point raised in the debate by Andrew Holding: he asked, with reference to the hunter-gatherer and the house: what does the hunter-gatherer say? Though I have listened carefully, I have missed, in the presentations of the opposition, any reference to specific symbolic or other formulations from any particular hunter-gatherer group. I, too, would like to know where the boundary between person and nature, home and bush, might be placed, and where we should locate the interaction between the two. I would like to know the fit, or lack of fit, between a representation like that of Ingold, with his hunter-gatherer facing the environment, and the representation you might actually find in a real human community. Let us by all means return to real human communities. The picture that Ingold gives us of the isolated hunter-gatherer in the environment is in my view a myth, one that sanctions (to use an old-fashioned term which is not part of my normal vocabulary) a new kind of functionalism that pervades both his writings and his remarks in this debate. Let us ask that hunter-gatherer. Now, I have carried out fieldwork in an area where the hunting idiom is still very prevalent even though opportunities for hunting are, from the point of view of local people, unfortunately very rare. The corresponding myth would not envisage a male hunter with his spear facing the environment, looking out from the door of his hut or the entrance to his cave. It would portray a woman in her hut whilst the man is out in the forest, in the domain of nature. Unless one tries to engage with real ethnography, with actual representations of this kind, originally couched in another language, it is difficult to prevent a debate like this from becoming a ritual game of words. And surely, in dealing with these representations, we are concerned with the processes and products of cultural construction.


There is mounting evidence to support the view that at least some non-human species possess a reflexive capacity. See, for example, D.L. and R.M. Seyfarth, How monkeys see the world: inside the mind of another species, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.


P. Berger and T. Luckmann, The social construction of reality, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966.


J. Gowlett, Ascent to civilization: the archaeology of early man, London, Collins, 1984, pp. 106-7.


See, in particular, P. Bourdieu, Outline of a theory of practice, trans. R. Nice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977.


T. Asad, Towards a genealogy of the concept of ritual’, in Vernacular Christianity: essays in the social anthropology of religion presented to Godfrey Lienhardt, eds W. James and D.H. Johnson, Oxford/New York, JASO/Lilian Barber Press, 1988.


M. Mauss, ‘Body techniques’ [1934], Part IV of Sociology and psychology: essays by Marcel Mauss, trans. B. Brewster, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.


W. James, The listening ebony: moral knowledge, religion and power among the Uduk of Sudan, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988, esp. pp. 68-83.


M.Z. Rosaldo, Knowledge and passion: Ilongot notions of self and social life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980; S. Harrison, ‘Concepts of the person in Avatip religious thought’, Man (N.S.) 20, 1985, pp. 115-30; Signe Howell, Society and cosmos: Chewong of Peninsular Malaysia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984, esp. pp. 127-74.


M. Strathern, The gender of the gift: problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988.


Symposium on ‘Ritualization of behaviour in animals and man’, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, no. 772, volume 251, Series B, 1966.


T. Ingold, An anthropologist looks at biology’, Man (N.S.) 25, 1990, pp. 208-29.


S. Collins, ‘Categories, concepts or predicaments? Remarks on Mauss’s use of philosophical terminology’, in The category of the person: anthropology, philosophy, history, eds M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 46-82.


C. Geertz, The transition to humanity’, in Horizons of anthropology, ed. S. Tax, Chicago, Aldine, 1964, p. 39.


See, for example, H.C. Brookfield, ‘On the environment as perceived’, Progress in geography 11, 1969, pp. 51-80; R.A. Rappaport, Pigs for the ancestors, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1968, pp. 237-41; R.F. Ellen, Environment, subsistence and system, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, Ch. 9.


This account of perception follows the approach of ‘ecological psychology’, pioneered by J.J. Gibson in The ecological approach to visual perception, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979; see also E.S. Reed, ‘James Gibson’s ecological approach to cognition’, in Cognitive psychology in question, eds A. Costall and A. Still, Brighton, Harvester Press, 1987.


See Martin Heidegger’s celebrated essay, ‘Building dwelling thinking’, in his Poetry, language and thought, New York, Harper & Row, 1971, pp. 145-61.


A.N. Whitehead, Science and the modern world, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1938 [1926], p.217.


T. Ingold, ‘An anthropologist looks at biology’, Man (N.S.) 25, 1990, pp. 208-29.


R. Littlewood, ‘From categories to contexts: a decade of the new crosscultural psychiatry’, British Journal of Psychiatry 156, 1990, pp. 308-27.


T. Ingold, ‘Culture and the perception of the environment’, in Bush base: forest farm. Culture, environment and development, eds D. Parkin and E. Croll, London, Routledge, 1991, pp. 39-56.


R. Littlewood, op. cit.


Cf. ‘The three little pigs’, in I. and P. Opie, The classic fairy tales, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 94; B. Bettelheim, The three little pigs: pleasure principle versus reality principle’, in his The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978, pp. 41-5: ‘Since the three little pigs represent stages in the development of man, the disappearance of the first two little pigs is not traumatic…'(p. 44)


P. Berger and T. Luckmann, The social construction of reality, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966.


N. Simmonds, Principles of crop improvement, London, Longmans, 1979, p. 82.


Ibid., p. 132.


J. Guyer, The multiplication of labor: gender and agricultural change in modern Africa’, Current Anthropology 29, 1988, pp. 247-72.


J.M. Chernoff, African rhythm and African sensibility: aesthetics and social action in African musical idioms, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979, pp. 59-60.


C.A. Waterman, Juju: a social history and ethnography of an African popular music, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 220.


C.Lévi-Strauss, The naked man: introduction to a science of mythology, 4, New York, Harper & Row, 1970.


J. Attali, Noise: the political economy of music, trans. B. Maasumi, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 135.


P. Bourdieu, Outline of theory of practice, trans. R. Nice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977.


From Collected poems of Ivor Gurney, ed. P.J. Kavanagh, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 161. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.


C. Geertz, ‘The impact of the concept of culture on the concept of man’, in New views of man, ed. J.R. Platt, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1965.


P. Berger, The sacred canopy, New York, Doubleday, 1964.


R. Stone, Let the inside be sweet: the interpretation of music event among the Kpelle of Liberia, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1982.


This view is very well argued in P.J. Wilson, The domestication of the human species, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988.


See, for example, M.D. Sahlins, The use and abuse of biology, London, Tavistock, 1976. Sahlins counters the claims of the sociobiologists with a vigorous assertion that human worlds of meaning are engineered in accordance with imposed, symbolic blueprints. Culture, he writes (p. 13), is a ‘meaningful system of the world and human experience that was already in existence before any of the current human participants were born, and that from birth engages their natural dispositions as the instruments of a symbolic project’.

1991 debate
Language is the essence of culture

Tim Ingold

Not so long ago, it would have been considered self-evidently true, by the vast majority of anthropologists, that human cultures owe their very existence to language. This assumption, which made of language the indispensable tool of anthropological inquiry, also served to remove it, and its role in cultural processes, from the field of investigation. Nowadays we are no longer so sure, and by the same token the use of language both by the peoples among whom we study, and in our own research and writing, has become a focus of critical attention. That many today would doubt that language is the essence of culture, or at least regard this as a matter calling for justification, is eloquent testimony to the extent to which anthropology has cut itself loose from past certainties. We have begun to question whether, or in what sense, things like ‘culture’ (or cultures) and ‘language’ (or languages) can be said to exist at all, whilst talk of essences immediately sparks off charges of unwarranted reification. What is left of the old maxim that ‘to understand the culture you must first understand the language’, when verbal discourse seems to generate as much misunderstanding as understanding, and when a large part of what goes on in everyday life appears to be independent of—and even resistant to—linguistic articulation? It was to address questions of this kind that the proposition, ‘language is the essence of culture’, was adopted as the motion for the fourth in this series of debates.

Ostensibly, the argument is about whether language calls into being the cultural worlds in which people live, or whether these worlds are given form and meaning by virtue of a cognitive engagement that precedes language, and to which language gives no more than superficial and incomplete expression. David Parkin, proposing the motion, and Brian Moeran, seconding, both take the view that even those objects of cultural experience that might at first glance appear to have nothing to do with language—such as paintings or smells—only exist for us as paintings, smells or whatever by virtue of activities of classification, interpretation and judgement. These activities are social, and require a medium of symbolic communication. That medium is language. Thus it is within verbal discourse that those meanings are constituted, and held in place, which give form to the raw material of sensory experience. Against this, in opposing the motion, Alfred Gell argues that culture consists of concepts rather than verbally constituted meanings, and that these concepts are established in the course of a direct, practical involvement with other persons and things in one’s surroundings, an involvement which need not (and for small children manifestly does not) entail fullyfledged verbal discourse. And James Weiner, seconding the opposition, makes the parallel point that speech, far from serving to represent in words what people already know on the basis of their practical experience, is but part and parcel of an overall current of skilled activity, that includes all kinds of everyday non-linguistic practices as well.

Paradoxically, this brings Weiner’s position closely into line with that of the motion’s proposer, Parkin. Both refuse to draw any absolute line of demarcation between speech and such non-verbal forms of communication as manual gesture or facial expression, or between these and other kinds of cultural conduct. For Parkin, the proposition ‘language is the essence of culture’ implies that the two are simply indissoluble one from another: any attempt to draw them apart would lead to the absurdities of culturally decontextualized language and linguistically decontextualized culture. Weiner’s opposition to the motion, on the other hand, is targeted on the very possibility of ‘essence’, on the idea that there is such a thing as language which may or may not be the essence of culture, or conversely that there is such a thing as culture, of which language may or may not be the essence. Thus to argue that language is not the essence of culture is not necessarily to imply that something else, such as dance or pantomime, is, although one participant in the debate—Chris Knight—does indeed mount an argument to this effect.

Gell’s view, however, is quite different. He does not hesitate to speak of a’capacity for language’, with a clearly defined neurophysiological substrate in all human brains, and he puts up a robust defence of the distinction between verbal speech and non-verbal communication whilst recognizing, of course, that the latter is the normal accompaniment of the former. But this language capacity, he argues, is not what enables culture to come into being; it rather serves to convert into discourse what has already been brought about through the work of ‘cognition and sociality’. And although Moeran disagrees, arguing strongly that cultural forms (including even those for which a non-linguistic essence is claimed) exist only thanks to language, he appears to share with Gell the underlying assumption—which both Parkin and Weiner reject—that language is critically distinct from non-verbal behaviour. His is an argument for grounding the non-verbal in the verbal, not for dissolving the distinction between them.

To unravel the complexities of this debate it is important to realize that underlying the argument about the role of language in the constitution of cultural worlds is a more fundamental issue, which precisely crosscuts the first, about the ontological status of language itself. This issue arose in connection with three interlocking themes concerning, first, the distinction between language and music, second, the relation between words and concepts and, third, the emergence of language in ontogeny and phylogeny. What follows is a brief introduction to these themes, and the questions they raise.

Studies in neurophysiology have provided us with apparently incontrovertible evidence that linguistic comprehension and musical appreciation involve the functioning of neural circuitry in different regions of the brain. Does this not prove that music is, at base, independent of language, and hence that language alone cannot be the essence of culture? For where would culture be without music, or for that matter without mathematics, or art, or dance? Yet for the neurophysiologist who puts the question, ‘Which parts of the brain are involved in language and which in music?’, and who seeks to answer it from studies of the disabilities of patients suffering from various kinds of brain damage, the distinction between language and music is already presupposed. It is embodied in the very questions he asks of the data at his disposal. But on what grounds is the distinction drawn? How do we draw the line between, say, speech and song? Both, surely, involve the expressive use of the same bodily organ, the human voice. Challenged to identify the source of a song’s meaning, we might agree that it is brought forth in the very act of singing, and is inseparable from the sounds themselves. Why, then, should we be led to believe that understanding the meaning of a spoken utterance differs in any fundamental way from understanding the meaning of a melodic line of song?

The answer is that this belief is founded on the axiom that words refer to concepts. As Gell remarks, in the course of this debate: ‘Who, after all, ever said anything in music?’ The premiss behind this admittedly rhetorical question is that unlike the sounds of music, the words of language draw their meanings from a source outside themselves—namely from concepts already installed in the several minds of the members of a community of speakers. Language, it is argued, makes it possible for ideas to be shared within the community, though such sharing clearly requires that a set of conventions be already in place, mapping words on to their (more or less arbitrarily assigned) conceptual referents. Yet to argue thus is to assume, at the base of language, an ontological dualism between mind and world, such that speech serves to give ‘outer’ expression to ‘inner’ mental states or beliefs or ideas about the world. Weiner, for his part, explicitly sets out to expose and subvert the propositional attitude entailed in this view. In a revealing exchange with Knight, each accuses the other of introducing an unacceptable distinction between word and gesture. To appreciate what is at stake in this exchange, it is important to clear up what was a source of some confusion in the debate, namely the slippage from ‘vocal’ to ‘verbal’. To communicate by gesture, in so far as this does not involve the use of the voice, is not in itself to communicate without words, for there are systems of manual signs—such as those in use in communities of the deaf- that have all the properties of verbal language. If, with Knight, we take the defining characteristic of language to be that the signs of which it consists refer to shared concepts, to a set of collective representations, then it makes no fundamental difference whether these signs take the form of pantomimic gestures or of verbal utterances. For Weiner, too, the manual gesture is not fundamentally different from the spoken word, not, however, because both refer to concepts, but because with both, the meanings they convey are inseparable from the bodily activity of their production. In his view, words no more derive their meanings from an external attachment to concepts than do gestures!

To claim this is at once to dissolve the foundations for the conventional distinction between language and music, and between speech and song. Indeed, Weiner’s position recalls that of Merleau-Ponty, who maintained that if we could only liberate language from the efforts of the grammarians to determine its ‘correct’ forms, in terms of the rational application of rules, we would find that ‘the words, vowels and phonemes [of language] are so many ways of “singing” the world’. 1 Thus the meaning of speech, like that of song, lies in the circumstances of the speaker’s engagement with the world; it is not something that precedes that engagement, and which it serves to deliver. Now Parkin, too, rejects the absolute opposition between verbal and non-verbal communication, regarding the very category of language, constituted by that opposition, as an analytic fiction. Words may have conventional meanings, but these conventions are not given a priori but have to be worked at: each is the product of a historical struggle, and each a site of ongoing contestation. Compressed into the meaning of every word is a history of past usage, embedded in specific contexts of relationship between speakers and hearers.

This leads finally to the issues surrounding the emergence of language in ontogeny and phylogeny. Gell, who introduces these issues into the debate, argues that the achievement of linguistic proficiency is an end-product not only of the developmental process of cognitive growth in the child, but also of the evolutionary process of hominization that led to the emergence of (so-called) anatomically modern Homo sapiens, ‘people like us’. The implication, however, is that every infant member of the species comes already equipped with an evolved ‘capacity for language’, whose realization depends upon subsequent ontogenetic development in an environment that includes speaking caregivers. On what grounds, however, can one presume the pre-existence of such a capacity? Is it not to commit the fallacy of positing language in advance of the processes that give rise to it? And if the category of language is itself an analytic fiction, a historical product of the modern imagination, and one moreover that is purveyed primarily by adults, what justification is there for treating language as a human universal that has underwritten the work of the imagination ever since, as they say, ‘history began’? And how can we any longer regard language as something whose evolution or development we can attempt to describe or explain? Indeed, we would have to conclude that the whole debate on language origins, which has recently gained so much momentum, is seriously misconceived.

The debate that follows does not resolve these issues. On the contrary, it opens up a Pandora’s box of doubts and queries that are crying out for attention. When it comes to language and culture, it seems that anthropology will have to go back to the drawing board. To sort out all the issues raised in this debate will keep us occupied for many years to come.

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