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

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Part I
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Considerable confusion surrounds the word ‘essence’. It is much maligned and sometimes seen as necessarily linked to essentialism, that constraining mode of thinking that reifies, concretizes and fixes artificially the infinite flexibility of what we say and do. But the fundamental sense of essence is much more innocent: it has to do with presence, with existing or, simply, being.

Thus a gloss on the proposition before us today—language is the essence of culture—is that language is the way of being of culture. If language is the way of being of culture, then the reverse applies, and culture is the way of being of language. In other words, the two are indissolubly part of each other. That, then, is my starting-point, and I would further insist that anyone who argues for the analytic separation of language and culture, as distinct fields of study, reproduces the folly that led linguists, on the one hand, to study languages as though they could be divorced from the contexts of social life, and anthropologists, on the other hand, to report their observations of cultural practices without adequate reference to what the people themselves had to say.

One aspect of the combined essence of language and culture lies in their operation as systems of communication. It was not for nothing that Lévi-Strauss 2 grouped together marriage alliance, the exchange of goods and services and mythology as the culture of communication. As anthropology has moved further from structuralism and semiology, the idea that language and culture are indissolubly part of each other has been strengthened even more. In place of the structuralist view of meaning as already given in events and sayings, and as grounded in fundamental properties of the human mind, we have come to look at the myriad ways in which people construct and work at their social worlds through continual improvisation and interpretation. This point is critical. For it is through their interpretations of events that people make judgements, sometimes accepting them but as often contesting them. We might call this a workaday hermeneutics or perhaps hermeneutic bricolage.

One of the great past mistakes of anthropology was to define and think of language as though it were isolated from other forms of human activity. Those who would argue that language is not the essence of culture, that culture need not include language as part of its essence, and that therefore culture can exist independently of language, commit the error of imagining language to exist in a vacuum.

It is perfectly true that much theoretical linguistics depends, for its data, on the fiction of the socially decontextualized speech event: it focuses on strings of grammatically acceptable sentences that are supposed to have truth values, but completely omits any reference to the vital paralinguistic properties of gesture, mood and sentiment, and to differences of status, hierarchy and power between speakers and listeners. Even the culturally abhorrent may appear to be grammatically acceptable, if treated as governed by hermetically sealed rules standing outside of culture.

The anthropological corollary would be the absurd claim that there exists a linguistically decontextualized culture, one that operates without language and that can be studied as such. I find such an idea preposterous, as I do the idea of separating out verbal language from non-verbal communication. Indeed, the category of the verbal, set up by such separation, is itself an analytic fiction. The constitutive essence of verbal language is the same as that of non-verbal activities. To that extent we may speak of the indispensable role of language in human culture: for that which constitutes language is also that which constitutes what we more broadly call culture.

Having recognized the mutual indissolubility of language and culture, I should like to move on from the idea of each as purely semiological, and to view them rather as partaking of various semantic fields.

Semiology is not, of course, the same as semantics. Semiology is based on the idea that signs have meaning in relation to each other, such that a whole society is made up of relationally held meanings. But semantic fields do not stand in relations of opposition to each other, nor do they derive their distinctiveness in this way, nor indeed are they securely bounded at all. Rather, semantic fields are constantly flowing into each other. I may define a field of religion, but it soon becomes that of ethnic identity and then of politics and selfhood, and so on. In the very act of specifying semantic fields, people engage in an act of closure whereby they become conscious of what they have excluded and what they must therefore include.

Here I return to my claim that we should see both culture and language as having to do with communication. Of course, culture is not only about communication. We make things, create objects of art and spin a web of complex understandings, not all of which may be intended as ways of communicating messages. But I would insist that they are at least expressive, and to that extent open to interpretation by other people.

Semiology’s mistake was to assume that the piece of wood someone has whittled into a particular shape communicates a meaning. It may have been so intended, but in many cases it results simply from an aesthetically satisfying activity. On the other hand, meaning is commonly attributed to objects and activities by people, who may then go on to insist that this is what the artist or author intended. That they may be wrong or inconsistent in their attributions is irrelevant to the fact that such interpretations occur and so set up chains of judgements. For all his brilliance in other respects, Collingwood may have been wrong to argue that an individual’s artistic imaginings can remain outside of language. As Wollheim counters, 3 art, as a concept, only makes sense in terms of our social relationships and communications with others.

In other words, in dealing with society and culture as total entities, we do not and cannot stop short at whittled pieces of wood or the apparently random products of people’s private imaginings. Rather, we find ourselves at some point examining the public, social and cultural uses to which objects and activities are put and the ways in which people classify them. The imperative of language is itself that of the cultural, and while mental excursions may well be made into non-verbal otherness, these are in the end interludes, often highly creative, which are organized over time in terms of the dispositions and orientations of linguistic-cultural communication.

It is unfortunate that the anthropological sub-field of ethno-classification essentializes people’s taxonomies by claiming that these folk classifications denote central cultural truths, when in fact they are rarely clear-cut, consistent, or separable from practical activities. Of course, that persons in society do classify, albeit only provisionally and for certain purposes, is undeniable. As we well know, it is the human intellect that works to create mytho-poetic culture and science, and this is only possible thanks to the human capacity for language.

If we were to imagine human culture with classification but without verbal language, it would still include the paralinguistics of communication. The prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, Les Eysizes and elsewhere may be powerfully moving, and the people who produced them clearly had culture, with perhaps limited verbal language. Yet they were able to hand on—that is, communicate—the technology and sentiments both of what we have come to regard as an art form and of the various uses to which it may have been put. Pre-verbal language was clearly there right from the start. As recent research has shown, language probably began as pantomime and not acoustically: 4 it is both verbal and non-verbal and can only be treated as such. That is to say, language in this complete sense was, and still is, inextricably implicated in human culture.

But even when we do emphasize its verbal component, we find language to be indispensable in constituting later human cultures, of the kind that anthropologists have been studying for the last seventy-five years. The point is that the verbal and non-verbal dimensions of language always stand in some kind of tension with each other. For instance, ‘ritual’ may seem to be based on physical actions, gestures and bodily divisions rather than on verbal language, with the emphasis on the ways in which participants stand, move and act in relation to each other and to their bodies through the phases that make up the ritual, rather than on the verbal commands that may accompany these phases. Yet it is only possible to classify that ritual event in relation to other events by setting them against a wider backdrop both of people’s classifications and of their judgements over time.

This aspect of time is crucially important. While monuments, mementos, effigies, art objects and rituals may, over many generations, reproduce motifs and phases, their relational significance is always—in the last instance—open to wider verbal contestation and appeal. And the verbal is the final arbiter in contests to decide, rightly or wrongly, what is authentic and acceptable practice.

This lies at the heart of what we may call power in culture as distinct from power in society. Social power is exercised when groups fight each other. Cultural power is exercised when groups negotiate their respective boundaries. A society totally without a language of argument is not capable of converting power contests into the moral judgements that make up the persisting differences between cultures.

Let me expand on this point. The anthropological idea of human cultures clearly rests on the idea that there are differences between them. As observers, our views of such differences are based on indigenous versions, as peoples themselves argue with each other about what is proper Nuer or Dinka custom or about who is entitled to be called Nath or Jieng. But the very notions of ‘proper custom’ and of ethnic belonging and entitlement take us into questions of morality and law.

It is partly in this sense that Evans-Pritchard argued that social anthropology was the study of societies and cultures as systems of morality. Can we possibly envisage human culture without such moral and legal senses of boundedness, and without the forensic argumentation that this requires? Without moral and legal argumentation, humans would literally be cast into a world of actions without words in which, ultimately, questions of inclusion and exclusion could only be settled by brute force. It is precisely the potential in human cultures to argue a case verbally, whether on moral or legal grounds, that gives them their best hope for survival.

My argument, then, is that in the evolution of territorial and material interests, even the non-verbal in human culture can only be perpetuated through the kinds of verbal persuasion needed to settle moral and legal claims, with the result that a wide variety of rhetorical styles develop—a very essence of culture indeed. In recent years, intellectuals have castigated the logocentric bias of Western thinking, and have denounced the tyranny of verbal language as a determinant of our presuppositions and a prison-house of our creative impulses. We have, I believe rightly, come to accept such critical reflection as part of our methodology. But these deconstructive critiques have only been possible through the very medium which is questioned, and which is not therefore to be regarded as discredited but, on the contrary, as continually enriched by the questions asked of it. Alongside its potential for abuse and control, verbal language has this capacity for enrichment.

In this sense language is the forensic that makes the creative possible. It is a part of our cultural heritage that has become ever more central as the complexities of power and inequality multiply in a world in which cultures are brought into confrontation and collusion. The various media that bring about such often destructive closeness—that is to say, the sounds, visual images and modes of verbal persuasion—are all in various ways evocative. But it is of course verbal language which is by far the most effective in reciprocal argument. Can anyone therefore doubt that it is the essence of culture, hopefully for good, but also perhaps for bad?

ALFRED GELLThe proposition that language is the essence of culture can be contested at two levels: first, at the level of general concepts and, second, at the level of empirical generalization. That is, one can object to the very notion that culture has an essence, and this is partly what my colleague, James Weiner, is going to do. I agree with him about essences, but I am not going to anticipate his arguments. Instead I shall convert the proposition, which I also believe is conceptually objectionable as it stands, into a number of other less objectionable assertions about human evolution and cognition. I intend to show that even if one sweeps away the cobwebs that must obscure any proposition which speaks of these hardly well-delineated entities, one is left with a collection of more accessible empirical propositions that are still demonstrably false.Taking the most charitable view possible, the proposition can be recast as making three sets of claims: one concerning human phylogeny, a second concerning human ontogeny, and another set concerning phenomenology.

1 It is claimed that, phylogenetically, a capacity for language is the crucial trait which distinguishes our species from the great apes. The modification of the cognitive apparatus to accommodate language was the crucial step in hominization.

2 Ontogenetically, it is claimed that what permits the human infant to take its place in the social world of other human beings is culture, which is conditioned by language, which in turn arose through the special evolutionary trajectory envisaged in (1).

3 Phenomenologically, it is claimed that human cultural life consists in transactions which are either speech events or are derived from them (such as interior monologues, or ‘thoughts’). Selfhood is linguistic self-awareness, or inner speech. The world is construed, in thought, through language-based conceptual categories, so that culture in general has the same cognitive basis as the associated natural language.

I hope that most people would agree both that the three claims just adduced correspond to the sense of the proposition we are debating and that, all things considered, I have formulated them in a way designed to exhibit the proposition in the best possible light. But even recast in the form of these reasonable-sounding paraphrases the motion is still false, and contrary to reasonable inference and practical experience, as I shall now demonstrate.

I am not a specialist in human evolution, but I do not believe that specialists in the subject would disagree with the obvious objections which I am going to raise against the first claim.

The pongid and hominid lineages separated long before there was the remotest possibility of ancestral hominids having had the ability to speak. This separation was initially associated with the evolution of specialized hominid lower limbs and feet (for walking and running) and the concomitant freeing of the upper limbs and hands for holding, carrying, striking and throwing. The new limb and pelvic anatomy had implications in the domains not just of feeding behaviour, but also of reproduction and social behaviour. Hominid infants can be carried, unlike pongid infants who must often ride. And it is accepted that during this early (australopithecine) stage there took place the profound alterations in reproductive biology which distinguish humans from apes—that is, the development of the monthly cycle, the disappearance of external sexual swellings, and so on, all of which provide the biological basis for the distinctively human system of mating and child-rearing. While these momentous evolutionary changes were underway, there is no suggestion, in the form either of artefacts or of changes in the cranium, of any enhancement of cognitive capacity, let alone of linguistic ability.

Thus we can forget about the australopithecine stage altogether. But it might still be felt that the later stages of hominid evolution, leading up to the emergence of Homo sapiens, might be more relevant. Could it not be argued that the transition from the cognitively primitive australopithecines (who persisted for a long time whilst hardly changing at all) to their modern descendants has to be explained by the introduction of a new disturbing factor triggering an evolutionary leap forward? And would not language be a prime candidate for consideration as this factor?

This raises the problem of dating the ‘origin of language’. Palaeontologists preside over the evidence bearing on this question, which is not to say that they agree on its interpretation. In fact, they are divided into two camps: those who suppose that Homo erectus, or even Homo habilis, had some form of language, as against those who think that, to the contrary, language was (and is) associated uniquely with Homo sapiens (with a question mark concerning the Neanderthals). 5

The argument for an early origin rests on a somewhat circuitous base, since there is nothing in the actual remains or productions of Homo habilis or Homo erectus that unambiguously suggests language. The expansion of the brain may be connected with enhanced manipulative skill rather than with language as such, and there is certainly nothing at all ‘symbolic’ in the appearance of any of the artefacts these creatures left behind. The argument is not based, however, on direct evidence of symbolic-linguistic processes, but on the underlying assumption that the relatively rapid evolutionary changes affecting these hominids were associated with the development of distinctively ‘human’ complexity in the conduct of social relationships, and that this complexity is inconceivable without abstract language and the ability to deploy symbols.

In other words, the appeal is to principle, not evidence. But what would this principle be? It is, of course, none other than the very one we are presently debating—namely, that language is the basis of human life, life shaped by ‘culture’. The proposition that Homo erectus or Homo habilis ‘had language’ is plausible only if the proposition ‘language is the basis (essence) of human existence (culture)’ is true, and it is asserted only by thinkers who make this particular assumption. But if our debating proposition figures as an assumption in the thesis of the supposed language-capacity of Homo habilis and Homo erectus, then it is plain that the language-capacity of these hominids cannot be adduced as ‘evidence’ (even tenuous evidence) that our debating proposition is valid. That would be too blatant an instance of petitio principii, and obviously a worthless argument.

An alternative possibility is that the evolutionary transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens was triggered by the appearance of language. At this point in prehistory we find distinct local traditions in artefacts, stylization, evidence of design in the sequencing of manufacturing operations, and so on. There are also bones with scratches on them which suggest tallies, and evidence of ritual activities, not to mention art. The idea that Homo sapiens was, from the start, language-using is based on direct evidence, not on principle, and is indisputable. Indeed, how could one dispute this conclusion? After all, Homo sapiens is us, and we certainly talk.

But precisely because Homo sapiens is us, phylogenetic arguments have no bearing on the truth of the motion before us. If language only evolved with Homo sapiens, then we might as well have been concentrating on modern hominids all along, without reference to earlier epochs of human evolution. Human evolution was practically over and done with before the appearance of any evidence for language use. Language cannot therefore be considered a prime mover in the process of hominization. Our species evolved into a language-using one, but it evolved as a non-language-using one. Thus there are no grounds, in hominid phylogeny, for supposing that it was because they evolved linguistic communication that hominids evolved all the other traits which set them apart from pongids. On the contrary, everything suggests that it was because the hominids departed from the pongids in other, non-linguistic ways that they eventually came to differ from them with respect to the capacity for language as well.

Now let me turn to ontogeny. Once again I cannot claim expertise, but I do not think that any child psychologist, of whatever theoretical persuasion, would suppose that infants only form social relationships once they have acquired command of language, or to the extent that they are in command of it. On the contrary, children initiate social relationships within weeks or even within hours of birth, and these relationships are complex and nuanced long before even the most primitive sentences are produced, during the second year of life.

Moreover, even the most ardent innatists do not believe that children learn to speak spontaneously. What infants may possibly do spontaneously is listen sufficiently attentively to the spoken language they encounter, so as to form mappings between utterances and features of the world that they are able to cognize in a non-linguistic way. Outside the West, where parents are often tormented by competitive anxiety as to the verbal proficiency of their offspring, parents have tolerably clear motives in encouraging the development of linguistic ability—namely, so that children can respond to instructions concerning their proper behaviour. Language is the gateway to culture in the imperative mood; ‘do this, do that, hear and obey, child’. For this reason the Greeks concluded that monkeys did not speak because they did not wish to be enslaved and made to work. This myth accurately reflects the imposed nature of language. But why, then, are humans amenable and monkeys not? Why do infants eagerly embrace the meshes of language in which they must become entrapped? Is it because language as such (and culture-as-language) is their biological destiny? I do not think so. Language is just a means, one among many. What happens is that infants are drawn into language as a by-product of their intense cognitive engagement with the world, and their intense social engagement with other persons in whose company they experience the world. The mother’s words are an enfolding, caressing presence, an auditory substitute for the womb. This auditory embrace has to be elicited, however, by constant counter-prestations of childish babblings, and woe betide the unspeaking child who will be uncomforted and spurned. 6 The child is obliged to evoke its surroundings in words—its companions, toys, pets, fantasies and discoveries—as the price of recognition in the speaking world. But when we come to examine the treasures which the child is obliged to produce and display in order to be recognized, we do not find that these consist of a language as such, because the language is always provided from the outside, and is not the child’s own. What the child has to display is wit, invention, imagination and insight—that is, a much broader range of cognitive accomplishments than language itself. These accomplishments may culminate in the making of utterances (not necessarily, since infants can be witty in lots of other ways) but in any case they do not originate in the cognitive mechanisms which make utterances possible.

Thus, just as we saw that language marks the conclusion of the hominization process, but not the driving force behind it, so also we may say that the acquisition of adult language is an end-product of cognitive growth in the child, but not the process of growth itself, in that the child has to have the insight, the concept, the fantasy, before these can be turned into language and used as bargaining-chips in the process of social exchange. It may be that the motives which impel children to speak are social, but this is not to say that these social motives have been linguistically implanted and stem from the necessity of language. The child’s need for love, solicitude and reward precedes the onset of language and develops independently of it. Deaf or otherwise unspeaking children have all these needs, for instance, but their fully human inner life manifestly does not take place in a code that we would recognize as linguistic.

Just as language is phylogenetically a late acquisition of our species, so also it seems to me that, ontogenetically speaking, it is a phenomenon of adulthood. Children can talk of course, but complete control of language, elaborate narrative, oratory, exposition and argument are confined to adults, and often to older ones at that. In effect, it is these gradually acquired, advanced language skills which, in literate and non-literate societies alike, are the true index of social adulthood, the measure of the extent to which a person has left childhood behind.

It follows that if we accept the motion that language is the essence of culture, we are obliged to adopt an adult-centred perspective because language means adult language, especially that kind of super-adulthood which goes with displays of discursive wisdom. But this would be to exclude a large proportion of the human population from culture, namely the mass of infants and immature children who have yet to master advanced discursive forms—if indeed they ever will. Many never do, for structural reasons stemming from gender, status, class, and so forth, quite apart from considerations of intellectual ability.

But these unaccomplished persons excluded from the charmed circle of discursive adulthood are indisputably human, social and cultural beings. And even the accomplished speakers were once like them, having to arrive at a complex social adjustment and a sophisticated cognitive level in the process of mastering language. But if we define ‘culture’ as what is made apparent in accomplished language, then we have no means of understanding how culture comes into being, because culture is already fully present in the accompanying discursive forms.

If culture has an ‘essence’, then this must surely be what enables culture to come about as a process. Yet culture is only converted into discourse once it has already come about; language finalizes what cognition and sociality have accomplished in advance. This is not to deny the importance of language in social life, in so far as social life consists in the communication of ideas. But language is not the originating factor. It is not the essence of culture, but its surface crust or shell, marking the point where the underlying processes shaping thought, action and behaviour halt and fragment into a cascade of words.

Finally, I consider the phenomenological proposition that culture is language-like, equivalent to a language, or just is language, nothing more. I reject these propositions on the grounds that culture consists of concepts, and concepts cannot be understood in terms of the associated linguistic code, or the mechanisms which interpret the meanings of particular words in particular sentences. These mechanisms are formidable, but they by no means exhaust the domain of cognition in general. Or, more generally, culture includes language, but consists of much more besides.

Concepts are prior to language in so far as they consist for the most part of networks of exemplary instances and practical routines connected with them—routines which include appropriate forms of utterance, but also mental imagery, action sequences, and so on. Concepts do not come from language learning, but from experience and practice, and they are not codified as dictionary entries, or as checklists of features.

I derive these points from Bloch, 7 who has recently emphasized the non-linear nature of reasoning in practical situations. Bloch argues that the psychological processes of deciding ‘what to do next’ in practical situations (he cites car driving and chess playing as examples) involve far too many situational variables to be handled in linear fashion, and can only be explained in terms of a parallel-processing or network model. Marshalling ideas into a linear chain, the eternal problem of the prose writer, imposes a very special type of cognitive demand. Most thinking is not like this at all and is only peripherally linguistic. When I think, I watch mental television and comment on it in words, and when I draw, words cease. Musicians and mathematicians likewise engage in prolonged wordless reveries. But what is culture, minus music, art and mathematics? And if culture were all words. how laborious it would be like the famous philosophers’ Cup Final in Monty Python, in which the ball was never kicked at all!

So much for the phenomenological point. I conclude that language is by no means the essence of culture, taking ‘culture’ to refer to the specieswide ability to think and act in an organized and distinctively human way. But before concluding, it occurs to me that there may be some people here who are unhappy with this global concept of Culture with a capital ‘C’, and who may still be inclined to think that, cognitive theory aside, culture with a small ‘c’—i.e. English culture, French culture, Yanomami culture—is bound up with the specifics of the English, French or Yanomami language, each considered in its particulars. I cannot address this issue in detail but I would like to make two quick points.

Holland has given us many things: the earliest and best optical instruments, some fine music, and above all an incomparable, unprecedented treasury of images; as Alpers 8 has shown, it is to Holland that we owe the birth of the distinctive visual sensibility of the modern world. But I trust I shall cause no offence to Dutch people in remarking that the Dutch language is by all accounts a complete joke, despised even by those who speak it, a language in which nothing significant has ever been, or ever will be said. Now it would clearly be a travesty of culture-historical justice to identify Dutch culture, in any way, with the Dutch language. We all ‘speak’ the Dutch visual language, because the Dutch gave modern man his eyes; but the Dutch verbal language has nothing to do with anything important about Dutch culture and is, I believe, destined to be abandoned altogether in the none-too-distant future.

Conversely, English is indisputably a language in which a great many important utterances and discourses have been framed. But has this been by persons who have shared the same ‘English’ cultural premisses? Far from it. English has been, and is, spoken by a spectrum of people from every modern historical epoch, social class, ethnic and national identity. The excellence of English is that it is a common code in which mandarins and anarchists, Indians, Nigerians, Poles, Americans, etc. can frame remarks which may be deeply offensive to other English speakers, who cannot avoid understanding what their linguistic compatriots have in mind to say. It is just because language does not determine culture, attitudes, and values, that cultures can engage, clash, and contend. And that is good. But if languages were coterminous with their associated cultural schemata, none of that could ever happen, because merely to speak the same language would be tantamount to sharing the same ideas. And in so far as this conflict demonstrably does occur, we have proof positive that language is not the essence of culture.



In supporting the proposition that ‘language is the essence of culture’, I do not intend to follow the example of the previous speaker, who sidestepped the issue before us by ‘recasting the proposition’ in terms of the origins of language and culture. Instead, I shall follow strictly the line of thought developed by David Parkin, who has already expounded on the indisputable facts that not only is language the essence of culture as we know it, but also that it already exists in what might be called ‘pre-verbal’ societies. This means that language actually pre-empts culture and that—while bewaring the Durkheimian fallacy and taking account of the Saussurean distinction between langue and parole—there is a real sense in which language belongs to culture and society before it belongs to either you or me. 9 On the one hand, only where there is language is there ‘world’; on the other, language always preexists the individual subject and is the very realm in which she or he unfolds. Language is therefore prior to all particular individuals, their being emerging only in language. Thus being—or ‘essence’—itself becomes central, for it speaks through language (without necessarily becoming reified in the process).

On the other hand, there are some who would argue that there are certain cultural forms—for example olfactory sensations, or sexuality—which stand outside of language. 10 With such an intelligent and deeply sensitive audience as yourselves, it is probably not necessary for me to rebut such putrid arguments. But in case there are some among you who have been swayed by heady words designed to confuse otherwise well-ordered thoughts, I would like to consider further the argument that there are certain cultural forms which are non-linguistic and that language, therefore, is not to be reduced to culture.

At this very moment, as I speak (a word I would ask you to mark well), thirty fully grown men of various shapes and sizes are cavorting on a rectangle of neatly mown grass somewhere in the south-western suburbs of London. To some it may not be immediately clear as to precisely why these men, half of whom are all in white and the other half in a combination of orange and green, should be expending so much energy in pushing, shoving, jumping, running, kicking and throwing themselves at one another (with an occasional judicious punch and stamp to give flavour to the occasion) in such a manner as to invite injury to skin, muscle, organ and bone—all on the off chance that one of their number will secure possession of an oval ball and with great panache leap over a white line temporarily scarring each end of the splendid green sward on which they are—I quote—‘playing’.

The progress of this particular game of rugby—for that is what, in essence, I am describing—is being eagerly watched, not merely by a referee and two touch judges (let us now use the customary terminology), but by a whole crowd of people who are themselves of all shapes and sizes, lifestyles, classes, creeds and so on—people who at various moments during the game give vent to their pleasure, ecstasy, frustration, disappointment, even disbelief by shouting, whistling, singing, groaning, clapping hands, stamping feet, waving scarves, placards, flags and so on. Such basically non-verbal activities are also indulged in by the tens of millions of people around the world—in cultures as disparate as those of Canada and Hong Kong, of Samoa and France, of Zimbabwe and Japan—who will, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, be simultaneously viewing this World Cup final on their television sets in the privacy of their homes or in the communal atmosphere of their local pub, bar, café, tea-house or palm-thatched hut. 11 For one hour and twenty minutes, with a five-minute break for refreshment, a large part of the world, it seems, is at this very moment participating in a splendidly nonverbal cultural event.

But is this really so? Can we honestly say that a game of rugby (or of soccer, sumō, ice hockey, hurling, cricket, American or Australian rules football) has nothing to do with language? Of course we cannot. For a start, although the fifteen men on each team are involved in a heavily physical activity, they are continually shouting instructions to one another while play is in progress (as in the simple ‘pass it, Nige!’, or in the coded numbers for the line-out throw—‘14-21-7-92’). For his part the referee not only gives linguistically predetermined signals to indicate a goal, offside, which side is to put the ball into the scrum and so on; he will frequently reinforce these signals with verbal comment. This is, indeed, his prerogative—witness the way in which he will further penalize an already penalized player for ‘talking back’. Thus, although language should be absent in some respects from this cultural activity, we find that it is in fact very much a part of it, as the team makes use of a (usually timely and well-planned) injury or half-time to assess the game and plan further tactics. And of course, there is a very real sense in which the fact that a game of rugby does have tactics and rules makes it almost identical to that game of chess used by Saussure to illustrate his distinction between language and speaking. 12

This brief, but crucially important, brush with language is also found off the pitch where the crowd will give vent to its joys and frustrations. For all we know, even now the spectators at Twickenham will be engaged in a vocal rendering of ‘Swing low, sweet chariot!’—a song which gains its significance both from previous international games of rugby in England and, of course, from the way in which these games have been presented to members of the ‘Great British’ culture.

It is here that we come to another critical point about this ‘essentially’ non-linguistic cultural activity, for, as we are all too aware, this game is being televised, and because it is being televised, it is being talked about. Every game of this sort employs cultural experts who act as commentators, discussing the progress of the game itself, analysing it at selected moments, and providing prognoses about its eventual result. In the process of such commentary, these cultural experts call upon a whole range of connotations and meanings that make rugby in Great Britain, American football in the USA, or sumō in Japan not just a ‘cultural’ event with a small ‘c’, but part of a national Cultural identity. And language is absolutely integral to this process of creating what amounts to a cultural essence. 13 The rules, traditions, regulations, expectations, and moral and ethical codes that make up this particular cultural form ultimately rely on—and cannot exist apart from—language.

Let us move on. Realizing the quickness of the sand into which their arguments are being seen to sink, opponents of the motion might anxiously point out that, although language may be essential to our culture, it is not necessarily the case that the same importance is attached to it in other cultures. In other words, the proposition ‘language is the essence of culture’ is seen to reflect an underlying presupposition that ‘language is the essence of Western culture’.

As anthropologists are all too often accused of cultural bias, we must commend such sentiments. But alas! There is here a linguistic slippage which simply will not do. As my example of the game of rugby has already shown, cultural events are always accompanied by words of one sort or another. But language does not merely accompany culture in this manner; it defines culture. The same is as true of olfactory sensations—smells, to you or me—as of such pursuits as Zen meditation in which the aim is to achieve a total oneness with the world by denying the differentiation between self and other, between mind and body and hence—in our definition of the problem—between language and silence.

Even here, the only way in which we know that, for example, smells exist culturally is because they are named. The only way in which a smell can evoke some cultural, as opposed to individual, experience is through the transmission of that evocation in language. In other words, by naming or otherwise describing smells, one brings the non-linguistic immediately into the realm of language. Similarly in Zen Buddhism, by talking of the overcoming of language and the striving after oneness with the world, one presupposes that the self, and the cultural world in which the self develops, are already premissed on language. By trying to overcome a posited opposition between self and language, the Zen Buddhist monk merely asserts that language is already the essence of culture, and that the only way in which it is possible to reach this non-linguistic state is by means of language. Hence the importance of the mondo form of question and answer between master and pupil in Zen Buddhist practice. Language is denied only through language, at which point the acolyte attains enlightenment—a void wherein there is neither culture nor language. From the non-linguistic state the return to culture can only be effected by resorting again to language. Thus even in this non-Western, anti-logocentric activity, language cannot exist apart from culture, nor culture apart from language.

This brings me to one final counter-argument that might possibly be put forward as a means of subverting what is, after all, an obvious fact: that language is, as I have shown, the essence of culture. It might be argued that there are certain cultural objects or events which have persisted for decades, even centuries, and which have, as a result, proved that they are beyond language, since they clearly contain within them some ‘essence’ which is over and above the linguistic essence proposed here.

An example of such a cultural object with an ‘essence’ of this nature might be a play by Shakespeare, a painting by da Vinci, a Ming celadon pot, a Benin mask, or the cave paintings of Lascaux mentioned by my colleague. Such objects—the counter-argument would continue—are readily apprehensible as objects of ‘art’ because they contain within them some dramatic or other aesthetic quality that can be recognized by anyone in any culture at any period in time. And how do we know this? The art objects themselves proclaim their aesthetic qualities as ‘aesthetic facts’. 14 Language thus becomes totally inadequate and unnecessary to the appreciation of such forms of culture.

It is clear that, in coming to terms with such an argument, we are being obliged to deal with belief, as much as with any form of rational thought. Do you really believe that your reaction to Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, or other such art work stems from your immediate and unmediated experience with the object itself? Of course you cannot believe this, because it is not true. You gasp in wonder at an oil painting in the Louvre, because it is in the Louvre, set apart from other more or less similar paintings by special lighting and curtain effects, cordoned off from too close contact with humanity by a rope that is especially watched by one or more uniformed officials. You gasp because you have been conditioned to gasp (you are in a museum, in front of an oil painting, in the presence of guards, and so on), not because the painting itself has some innate, essential quality that moves you into the realm of paralinguistic ejaculation or any other form of climactic ecstasy. 15

That is all very well, you may say. But how is it, then, that Hamlet or the Mona Lisa has always been seen as art? Does this not prove that it must have some innate quality, some essence, that is apart from language? I am sorry to disappoint you, but upon closer examination of this question, we discover, for one thing, that the works of Shakespeare, for example, have not always been seen to be ‘art’, and that there was a long period in English (and world) cultural history when our ‘great’ ‘national’ playwright was ignored. And even had one of his works—let us say Hamlet—been seen as ‘art’ in all cultures of the world during all the four hundred and more years since its writing and first performance, it is obvious that my account of what Hamlet might mean now in certain cultural conditions, or of what it might have meant in times past, is still my account, inescapably influenced by my own language and frames of cultural response, and that a sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier’s account of the same play would be equally so influenced. And the same would be just as true of an eighteenth-century Guatemalan peasant’s account or a twentieth-century Japanese sumō wrestler’s account of Hamlet. In other words, there is no proof that what each sees as ‘art’ is in any way the same. All we know is that people make certain claims and put forward certain opinions which are then culturally contested.

Thus we have no choice but to accept the fact that art—even art—depends for its very existence on language. Art becomes ‘art’ because of the activities of an art world, 16 and in particular of certain critics and educators who, with the consummate linguistic skills characteristic of such other cultural experts as rugby football commentators (or anthropologists in a debating hall), lead you by a concerted rhetorical effort to be persuaded that art is beyond language, even though the only way in which they are able to try to so persuade you is through language itself.

And since, as I have shown, cultural objects can never be untied from language, regardless of the culture or historical period in which they are found, it must be admitted that the proposition before you is in fact correct: that language is indeed the essence of culture, for—as Wittgenstein so rightly said—the limits of language are the limits of the world. 17



I want to thank Brian Moeran for appealing to Ludwig Wittgenstein in his last sentence, for it is with Wittgenstein, whom Pierre Bourdieu once described as the thinker he most often turned to in times of difficulty, 18 that I begin. But my remarks are not, as were Brian Moeran’s, directed towards the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, where Wittgenstein was concerned with reference, but towards Philosophical investigations, where he came to grips with the notion of meaning within which the whole issue of reference is embedded. To paraphrase: ‘If the words “language”, “culture” and “essence” have a use, it must be as humble a one as “chair”, “table” and “floor”.’ 19 I want to examine each term of the proposition before us, and to ask whether there are in fact recognizable entities that we can label as ‘language’ and ‘culture’. I also want to ask whether these are in fact the kinds of things that have essences—in other words, I shall question whether there are things called ‘essences’ at all.

The motion also confronts us, as David Parkin noted, with that age-old paradox of hermeneutic reflexivity: how can something, namely language, be at one and the same time both the object and the tool of inquiry? That is, to what extent is the phenomenon we are now engaged in a part of the question we are addressing? How can one engage in a debate, using all the rhetorical skills that one’s language affords, to argue that language is not the essence of culture? The very fact that we are here doing precisely what we are doing is evidence enough that for us language is, at the very least, the essence of our craft. It is one of the ‘tricks of the trade’ that we academics learn: we, for whom language is the sea within which we swim, can nevertheless undermine the grounds of that medium without it affecting by one whit the naturalness, legitimacy or reality we ascribe to our discourse or academic life activity. If we were whimsical about this, we could call it, in the spirit of Weber, the routinization of nihilism. At any rate, the point is that both the affirmation and the denial of the thesis are proof of the counter-thesis, that language is not the essence of anything. We can only accept that the proposition is false within the context of a debate such as this, whereas it will resume being ‘true’ in the most spontaneous, ‘natural’, and practical way possible once the debate is over. (That is, the possibility of both the affirmation and the denial of the thesis is anticipated by the context of this particular language game in which we are now engaged, and so both have a literal meaning only within its confines.) Another way of putting this is to say that our conscious uses and deliberate objectifications of language presuppose what David Parkin described as a prior, spontaneous, non-cognitive practical engagement with and mastery of vocal activity; and the things we can say about the various forms of speech that are the products of a very special form of objectification—a debate, writing anthropology, a myth or ritual or poem—are restricted in their scope.

In other words—and I thank Brian Moeran for pointing it out—we engage in language games all the time, but language games are precisely not hypostatized languages as we are used to thinking of them, and to which we think we have been addressing ourselves so far. They are more like what Donald Davidson 20 calls ‘passing theories’ that we take up and discard as the situation merits; working hypotheses about what the world is like and what other people are referring to when they speak. In anthropological craft, a ‘passing theory’ is the set of glosses we come up with for rendering the utterances of our hosts into our own language. What we construct is not a translation from the language of the X into the English language but a passing theory about how we and they have come to agree on what certain utterances and other communicative acts mean in particular contexts.

Thus I doubt whether there is anything as reified or identifiable as culture or a culture, or language or a language. Questions about language as the essence of culture cannot be divorced from parallel considerations concerning the essence of language itself, or of thinking itself, all of which have been addressed in some way in the debate so far. The question of essences, then, has to go right through to the One Big Essence (or Meaning) of it All—spirit, or mind, or deep structure, or rationality, or what have you—the quest for which has been called, perhaps sardonically, ‘ontotheology’ by certain European philosophers.

One would have first to identify what it is about language that makes it the essence of culture. Is it its arbitrariness? Its rule-orderedness or systematicity? Its creativity? Its poetic quality? There are as many different ‘fundamental’ or ‘essential’ features of language as there are theories of why language is essential. Each of them reveals some feature of human social life that. its proponent wants to single out as being particularly redolent of cultural or human essence: speech, rhetoric, myth, ritual, magic, song, poetry, art, exchange, production—all of which I think have been mentioned in this debate. But this covers virtually everything, and what we have done is not so much shown that language is the essence of culture as demonstrated that we have no idea of how practically to distinguish between the two. If language has no special properties apart from any other kind of activity, then how can it be the essence of anything?

The problem is not that we lack a good practical grasp of what presuppose what David Parkin described as a prior, spontaneous, non-cognitive practical engagement with and mastery of vocal activity; and the things we can say about the various forms of speech that are the products of a very special form of objectification—a debate, writing anthropology, a myth or ritual or poem—are restricted in their scope.

In other words—and I thank Brian Moeran for pointing it out—we engage in language games all the time, but language games are precisely not hypostatized languages as we are used to thinking of them, and to which we think we have been addressing ourselves so far. They are more like what Donald Davidson 20 calls ‘passing theories’ that we take up and discard as the situation merits; working hypotheses about what the world is like and what other people are referring to when they speak. In anthropological craft, a ‘passing theory’ is the set of glosses we come up with for rendering the utterances of our hosts into our own language. What we construct is not a translation from the language of the X into the English language but a passing theory about how we and they have come to agree on what certain utterances and other communicative acts mean in particular contexts.

Thus I doubt whether there is anything as reified or identifiable as culture or a culture, or language or a language. Questions about language as the essence of culture cannot be divorced from parallel considerations concerning the essence of language itself, or of thinking itself, all of which have been addressed in some way in the debate so far. The question of essences, then, has to go right through to the One Big Essence (or Meaning) of it All—spirit, or mind, or deep structure, or rationality, or what have you—the quest for which has been called, perhaps sardonically, ‘ontotheology’ by certain European philosophers.

One would have first to identify what it is about language that makes it the essence of culture. Is it its arbitrariness? Its rule-orderedness or systematicity? Its creativity? Its poetic quality? There are as many different ‘fundamental’ or ‘essential’ features of language as there are theories of why language is essential. Each of them reveals some feature of human social life that. its proponent wants to single out as being particularly redolent of cultural or human essence: speech, rhetoric, myth, ritual, magic, song, poetry, art, exchange, production—all of which I think have been mentioned in this debate. But this covers virtually everything, and what we have done is not so much shown that language is the essence of culture as demonstrated that we have no idea of how practically to distinguish between the two. If language has no special properties apart from any other kind of activity, then how can it be the essence of anything?

The problem is not that we lack a good practical grasp of what think? In providing the gloss to a myth, in decoding a ritual, in giving an interpretation to a work of art, in finding underlying structures to speech, it is we who make of such underlying interpretations the ‘surprise of origin’, as Roy Wagner once described it. In writing it, we place over practice the mask of convention; in the hearing and the interpreting of speech, we put in the conventional spaces and intervals which make language into something linear, relational and representational. 22 But the trouble with seeing any behaviour as conventional in its essence is that its subversive, innovative, creative, extemporizing effects—all of the strategies of improvisation that make the conventional visible and tangible—are themselves routinized, compartmentalized and conventionalized.

Language-as-representational-system, then, is not the essence of anything. There are, however, two other senses in which it could be argued that language has some essential function. The first points to its communicative function as a vehicle for the exchange of information. The second, adopting the material sense of functionality, rests on the degree to which interaction-through-speaking—the actual practice of people flapping their jaws at each other—dominates human day-to-day activity. Let us take care to keep these two senses separate: it could very well be that a lot of jaw-flapping takes place without achieving any real exchange of information at all, especially given the extraordinary vagueness and polyvocality possessed by even the simplest and most unremarkable terms, leading one commentator to remark that ‘the commonplaces which make communication possible are the same ones that make it practically ineffective’. 23 Nor does it help to give scientific credibility to this confusion between levels of functionality by calling one semantic and the other pragmatic, for that merely covers over the epistemological problem posed, and also allows the semantic function to colonize the pragmatic one, producing just another ‘surprise of origin’. What is left is then the second part of this functional argument, one that is ultimately more Durkheimian, that the mere activity of jaw flapping as ‘work’ or energeia is socially integrative. But it is the fact that these last two functions can be separated that, interestingly, allows us to see Durkheim in a new light (with regard to his remarks on social density).

Left with the last functionalism, the material one, we are now led to consider whether some ‘cultures’ are more ‘vocal’ than others—a question that calls up such images as that of the taciturnity of the American Indians, like the Western Apache described by Keith Basso, who often ‘give up on words’. 24 We are into comparative considerations of the sort that Hubert Dreyfus exemplified by contrasting the American baby, whose parents spend a lot of time talking to it and eliciting speech from it, with the Japanese child whose parents elicit ‘presence’ rather than vocalization. 25 If these directions strike one as ultimately leading to such absurd questions as whether there could be a ‘culture’ which made do with an absolute minimum of speaking (recall how early American pioneers, confronted with sign-language-using Plains Indians, concluded that they had no faculty of speech), it is only because of an excessive focus on the function of speech, with its emphasis on communicating measurable quanta of information at the expense of the being of speech—that is, all the things that the human symbolic capacity is enabled by. (I hope you realize by now that I am using the notion of being in a way quite different from that employed by David Parkin.) Moreover, we often insist that measuring information is the same thing as counting bodies in the world, stressing its symbolic representational properties at the expense of its literalness and materiality in itself.

Speech is a part of social interaction more generally, and is inextricable from a range of other behaviours whose communicative function we take as a prior assumption rather than as a hypothesis to be tested. In other words, we have to confront the question as one about the embeddedness of vocal and verbal behaviour within a whole range of other similarly elicited behaviours such as comportment, interpersonal affection and intimacy, the learning of interpersonal spacings (i.e. the proxemic sense), daily rhythms, tastes in food, toilet habits, aesthetic judgements and so on. The point is that we are talking about the reproduction of some total bodily habitus and not about culture in the sense of a code that is structured by a set of rules. Like Mauss, who found that to analyse magic he had to consider the total range of social meanings that were available to a magician, the search for the essence of language or communication is coterminous with the search for whatever makes possible the relational and the conventional in human life. As Wittgenstein suggested, we have to clarify how to ontologize that question before we can know how to proceed.

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