Category Archives: on language and expression

“Lived experience”: mind and words

In recent years, students have heard me wince when they talk about “lived experienced.” “Could there be ‘dead experiences’?” I quipped. But they persisted as they are well aware of the terms one must use to pass as a well-educated participant in current academic intellectual life.

For a full philosophical argument that is said to have inspired Derrida, Ricoeur and Latour, see Bachelard on fire (1949) or closets (in [1957] 1964).
Still, perhaps I am wrong in dismissing something that appeared late in my career. Maybe it is about the mystery that, after eating a banana (living the experience of pealing a banana, putting it in my mouth, chewing it, wondering whether it is under ripe or over ripe, etc.) I can talk about the eating (as I am doing now) but cannot actually tell anyone who has never eaten a banana what it tastes like. Try explaining the difference between blue and green to someone who is color blind, or the difference between velvet and silk (or the various types of silk) to someone who has never touched any of them.

During the “culture is text” Derrida moment in my anthropological career, I ranted against those who appeared to say that all is words, that there is no “center” behind the words, and so on. When eating the banana we are not eating the word even if the word is all we have to communicate with other human beings about the eating.  There is something about the world that is not constructed (at least not by the experiencing human who had nothing to do with a construction).

All this is common sense (or should be) but it leaves anthropology with a perennial problem. If anthropology, as I would argue has something to do with exploring what it is like to be human among humans (and everything else) by actually living and reporting on humans (“participant observation”), then one has to wonder about the relationship between “life” and “reports on life.” One of the classical version of all this presents anthropology as concerned with “what life means to some people.” The most principled version of this might be Geertz’s. But he could not escape the dilemma so that he ended his career in something I sometimes teach as a form of depression about the very possibility of anthropology. As he put it in one of his later paper:

Are we, in describing symbol uses, describing perceptions, sentiments, outlooks, experiences? And in what sense? What do we claim when we claim that we understand the semiotic means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words or that we know minds? (1976:235)

These are rhetorical questions since Geertz was always really passionate about “mind,” “point of view,” “sentiment,” and indeed “experiences”—words that were common in the mid to late 20th century. These, I’d say is what is now summarized as “lived experiences.”

But the question remains: how are anthropologists to go from “lived experience” (ours or that of other people) to not only the final text of an ethnography but to the very conduct of the (participant) observation. What are anthropologists to look at if they are fully aware of the ineffability of the experience of life.

Say that you (me) are an anthropologist who has read about Branson, Missouri, and, on the occasion of a trip across the United States decides to stop there to find out what it’s all about. Given my personal (lived experience?) association of Branson with Dolly Parton, This association was “true” for me, but otherwise false as Branson became “Branson” before Parton and the “Stampede” performance did not include anything about Parton which could be a case of false advertisement.
and finding out that there was something called the “Dolly Parton Stampede” with a show I could attend, then I drove into the still empty parking lot of the building and started walking around, passing by garbage cans, utility hookups, stables, before approaching the main entrance those who paid to attend would use and which might be the first moment in their own lived experience of the event.

As I walked the parking lot, I realized that I was doing what I have always one: start observing a setting from the “back” to the “front,” from what constructing participants (janitors, engineers, accountants) do to what participants in the intended audience (those who pay) will be shepherded to see, hear, and, in the case of the Stampede (which is organized as a dinner/spectacle) taste–as well as smell given the participation of horses. So, the night I attended, I estimated the size of the audience (a few hundreds filling the venue) and some demographic signs. Given Corona, I looked of masks (a few per hundreds unmasked), the number of phenotypically Black persons (even fewer). I marveled at the number of American flags (and at the absence of many other symbols all the more noticeable as a brief scene about people in the Plains before the European appeared particularly carefully written not to trigger any political response).

The anthropological question is: what can I say about the lived experience of anybody in the audience? What of the man on my left: no partner and two young daughters? What would the daughters remember? What of the retired couple on my right? Any phenomenologist would have to agree that each of these five people experienced something different—even though it was triggered at the moment by exactly the same performance. And that phenomenologist might also note that the anthropologist’s “lived experience” of the event may be one of the more bizarre as I suspect very few people in the audience are writing analytic blogs of their experience (though there may have been writing in twits and Facebook posts).

My answer, of course, and it has remained constant through my half century of research, writing and teaching, is that I can say something about this performance (the flags, horses, bad jokes) and some of what make it possible (people who serve the food and take out the garbage). But I cannot say anything about what it is like, for anybody, to live that which others have built for one to experience. And I will never trust someone who tells me that they can tell me what they lived—even when they have lived it. I have never been worried about the answer I give to Geertz’s questions: knowing “words” (institutions, dependencies, affordances, etc.) is not only all we can do but is also essential.

On all this, I generally assign the first part of Merleau-Ponty’s Prose of the world ([1969] 1973) that concludes with the quip: “meaning is not in the words but between the words.”
Which is why I will not tell what was my own “lived experience” of Dolly Parton’s Stampede (though perhaps readers of this post will imagine it for me).

 

References

Bachelard, Gaston  1949     La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard.

Bachelard, Gaston   [1957] 1964     The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1976 “‘From the native’s point of view’: On the nature of anthropological understanding.” in Meaning in anthropology. Edited by K. Basso and H. Selby. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 221-237.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   [1969] 1973     The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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Saussure, thought, bodies and expression

September 20, 2021

Last week, I introduced students to the short passage in Saussure on “linguistic value” ([1915] 1966: 111-122 ). The high point of this passage is the illustration of the segmentation of thought. Saussure on the segmentation of thoughtI had always dismissed the easy and common critique for the apparent mentalism of the explanatopry paragraph. I always took all this as a model drawn to make us think (…), rather than as the description of a state of being or of some substance. Still, one cannot take Saussure literally when he writes:

 this quote about the absence of “pre-existing ideas” is the basis for the extreme elaboration  by Derrida in Grammatology,.  This elaboration may be based on a misreading and yet had a massive consequence in the development of “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”
“Without language thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language…. Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition.([1915] 1966: 112)”

We now know, post Freud et al., as well as Bourdieu et al, that, as Geertz once put it:

“A century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness … have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, ([1967] 1973: 112)”

or a Bourdieu did, our psyches (personalities, identities) are shaped by:

“disposition inculcated in the earliest years of life and constantly reinforced by calls to order from the group, that is to say, from the aggregate of the individuals endowed with the same dispositions, to whom each is linked by his dispositions and interests” ([1972] 1977: 14-15). ”

So, our brains are not just “a vague, uncharted nebula.” But brains are not actually Saussure’s concern. What he wants us to ponder is: how are we to tell what our brains are signaling?

One student wondered, quite properly, about music as a medium possibly particularly well suited to express what we are experiencing, and better at this than words. I agreed with the sentiment, and taught the usual instance of the Saussurian (and Boasian) analysis by using our experience of light vs. the naming of the light into “colors.” Anthropologists have debated about this a lot more than about music (or the experiences produced by our other senses since we are now talking not solely about “brains” but also about “bodies”). This may be proof of anthropological “ocularcentrism” (a new distinction I just discovered in the spectrum of Western epistemological biases). As I wrote this and started thinking further about the other senses, I remembered my wonder at how specialist try to describe the taste(s) of wine . “classic expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, displaying dark fruit notes of raspberry, currant, and blackberry jam with subtle hints of cocoa.”
All our senses participate in producing our experience of life–including, and this is where anthropologists, as well as Saussurian linguists, add something essential, our experiences when finding out that we are not hearing well, not seeing some colors, or tastes when the (in-)ability has been labeled and then made consequential by a governing (hegemonic) institution or another. That is, not only do we experience what our senses are signaling but also our positions in the many social worlds we also live by.

Given all this, what is it Saussure can continue to tell to students apprenticing themselves to anthropology? That telling our experience, and imagining that of others, involve segmenting it into units that have a “form” but not a substance. “Green/blue,” “blue/red,” “(not) on the autism spectrum,” “getting an ‘A’ rather then a ‘B’ on a test,” all do much more (and much less) than communicating something about our visual acuity, our political affiliation, mental health, education.

And the segments produced by language are always:
. Arbitrary (not motivated by function)
. Arbitrary (the product of an institutional “arbiter” whether a king or obscure “authorities”)
. Drifting and in need of reconstruction
. Making history in an altogether Marxist sense

[more on this]

References

Bourdieu, Pierre   [1972] 1977     Outline of a theory of practice. Tr. by R. Nice.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Derrida, Jacques   [1967] 1997     Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Geertz, Clifford   [1967] 1973    “The cerebral savage.” in The interpretation of cultures.. New York: Basic Books. pp. 345-359.

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On fishes, water, and consciousness

It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water. (Kluckhohn 1949: 11).

If we describe a community as an ecological system we describe it not as the members of that community themselves think of it. They are ignorant of a science of ecology. (Redfield 1960: 32)

Could it be that the fish do know much about just what, about water, makes the most difference as they continue swimming? (Varenne 2019: 25)

Recently, a student wondered how I could write what I did about fishes swimming in their water and quote Redfield approvingly (at least in general).

The issue is even more complicated if we add another version of the underlying issue concerning consciousness and knowledge:

The anthropologist will be dealing on the one hand with raw phenomena and on the other with the models already constructed by the culture to interpret the former. Though it is likely that, …, these models will prove unsatisfactory, it is by no means necessary that this should always be the case. As a matter of fact, many “primitive” cultures have built models of their marriage regulations which are much more to the point than models built by professional anthropologists. Thus one cannot dispense with studying a culture’s “home-made” models for two reasons. First, these models might prove to be accurate or, at least, to provide some insight into the structure of the phenomena; after all, each culture has its own theoreticians whose contributions deserve the same attcmion as that which the anthropologist gives to colleagues. And, second, even if the models are biased or erroneous, the very bias … are a part of the facts under study and probably rank among the most significant ones. (Lévi-Strauss [1952] 1963: 282)

In many ways I do not have much to add to Lévi-Strauss beyond trying to make more concrete what we might do if we are inspired by what he says about “home-made models” (a phrase I prefer to “models constructed by the culture”). How would we, anthropologists, recognize a “home-made model”?

As an easy example, I will follow Lévi-Strauss’s lead about models of marriage regulation and quote a statement about marriage by one of America most authoritative institutions, the Supreme Court:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. (2015 Last paragraph of the Obergefell v. Hodges, written by Justice Kennedy)

In my own work, and building on Schneider (1968), I used such statements in Americans Together (1978) to argue that “in America” “love” trumps all. I also emphasized that “love” is only one part of a model that also includes discourses and practices about “individualism” and “community.” I would probably write all this differently now but I would still say that, for people in the United States (the fish) experiencing their condition (water) when deciding whether to applaud or resist the Supreme Court, “love” remains the problem/solution that shapes practices and, particularly, disputes about practices. And so, I was not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, and even less by its justification.

Of course, many if not most social scientists, and not just Marxists, would question working with what they might label an “ideology” that masks “deeper” structural matters, and produces hidden consequences. Lévi-Strauss does argue that the same practices might be modeled differently and stresses that the differences themselves are useful for further investigation and analysis. Individualism/community/love is also neo-liberalism depending on how one models American practices.

How to handle such differences is something for another day. For now, I am just going to refer to Supreme Court opinions as an instance of (native) “discursive consciousness.” That is, writing such a statement, living with it, and resisting it, must involve and trigger “consciousness” by about any definition of consciousness. No fish swimming in American waters can fail to take into account the discourse and its practical consequences (even if, should the Marxists be right, this discourse mask properties of the water to which these fishes are blinded).

There is also what I call “practical” consciousness. This is the consciousness revealed by the actual practices of those who might not produce a discursive account of their experience. An easy example (based on something I overheard in the street):

Child (excitedly): “Mom, I singed yesterday, and it was great”
Mother (somewhat sternly): “Dear, say I ‘SANG’ yesterday.”

As all ethnographies of speaking with young children have demonstrated, parents all over the world intervene to require some change in the way the child is speaking. In other words, a parent (older sibling, etc.) will invoke some rule (and there are many!) about “speaking well” even if this parent could not produce a grammar of the language (and even less the full panoply of usage customs it would take long “ethnographies of speaking” for an anthropologist to produce).

Such moments of correction are ubiquitous and are probably the basic method for maintaining any arbitrary (e.g. ‘irregular’ verbs in English). There are many more some might find more significant as to ground any way of life. One example of this would be the generations of farmers in Bali who developed the complex agricultural practices that sustained millions over century (Lansing 2006). What exactly the farmers (and priests, rulers, etc.) “knew” about their ecology and technologies is a question that generations of colonial administrators and development specialists dismissed—to catastrophic consequences in some cases when the local populations followed the very discursive consciousness of those who esteemed themselves as experts. By every measures, the local “models” proved more useful than those developed by these others. In this case Redfield, though correct in principle as far as the “science of ecology” is concerned, is quite wrong in terms of survival requiring complex technological solutions involving a large crowd of people.

At this point one could bring to bear Ranciere on the wisdom of shoe-makers, or Gramsci on “organic intellectuals.” One might also note that there is great value in the specific form of consciousness (knowledge) developed in what is variously known as the “West,” “Euro-America,” the “Global North.”

To go back to the metaphor, it may be that the fish do not have a discursive consciousness of the water to the extent that … they cannot speak! However, everything about them, including the way they swim in the various waters this or that kind of fish might encounter, will tell much to the observer that the observer might not easily notice. And, of course, given that human beings are not fish, and that they do speak, what they say about their conditions is essential, even if it is not the last word on the matter—as they themselves might acknowledge as they dispute what they should do in some future.

References

Lansing, J. Stephen   206     Perfect order: Recognizing complexity in Bali. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1963 “Social structure.” Tr. by C. Jakobson and B. Schoepf. in his Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. pp. 277-323.

Schneider, David [1968] 1980 American kinship: A cultural account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Varenne, Hervé 1977 Americans Together: Structured Diversity in A Midwestern Town. New York: Teachers College Press.

 

 

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“Contingent Configuration of Resources” (culture?)

Last Monday, Stanton Wortham gave a wonderful talk on his work in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  There he got to know a first generation of Mexicans moving to the town for all sorts of wonderful, deeply human, reasons and making something new with much that was old–including, most recently, the very history of a movement that is now involving a second generation while people keep arriving.

In his conclusion, Wortham used the phrase “contingent configuration of resources.” The phrase spoke to me as a particularly apt way to capture the general implications of what anthropologists notice in their field sites: something “contingent,” something “configured,” something that has to do with the ‘resources” people find as they make their life.  In my terms, as I expand on Wortham:

1) contingent: not necessary, not quite predictable on the basis of earlier experiences, arising here but not there, now but not then, not reducible to rational functionality, arbitrary, made-up for the occasion, artifactual if not artificial;

2) configured: arranged, making a figure through the relationships between the parts that make something else that may then constrain further arrangement as the new gets coopted into the figure;

3) resources: a deceptively simple terms that include not only the material (ecology, economics) but also the symbolic, the interactional, the institutional and the political, and also the psychological, not to mention … chance.

Wortham presented his study through the career of an Italian plumber meeting a Mexican entertainer in Acapulco, wooing her, accepting the suggestion of one of her kin that she might have a hard time by her Mexican self in Pennsylvania, and moving her two sisters with him after marrying her.  They are followed by brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, sleeping on sofas in basement, and then opening shops, restaurants, and otherwise establishing themselves economically even as they married, raised children (and, I suspect, fought among themselves, and made other kinds of mistakes that made life even more difficult).

This is the anthropological “anecdote” at its best: apparently a single case, involving hundreds of human beings linked with each other in very concrete ways, and unique at the level of detail characteristic of ethnographic research and essential to anthropology.  This is not a controlled experiment but an occasion that reveals fundamental processes among human beings (Varenne 2014, 2015).

As those who know my work will see coming, I heard the phrase “contingent configuration of resources” as a more precise way of talking about what the word “culture” should index—unless it is that this is the way I have always understood “culture” though I may never have used the phrase.
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