American Chopper on anthropology

American Chopper anthropology

I keep thinking of this American Chopper meme and why it makes me laugh but also bugs me. The argument of the moustachioed man is one that is familiar to me but I find it to be naive. When such pure standards are set for decolonial methodologies, the baby is inevitably thrown out with the bath water. As Graeber and Wengrow put it: “To say Mi’kmaq thought is unimportant would be racist; to say it’s unknowable because the sources were racist, however, does rather let one off the hook.”

Anthropology may never be decolonised but that fact shouldn’t be taken as permission to avoid dealing in complexity (or dare I say ‘entanglement’) altogether. Anyone who works seriously with archival materials knows that knowledge is distorted by the power dynamic producing it, but it is never completely in its thrall. It has its own mercurial logic that very often eludes the structure that hopes to contain it. Edward Said is easily invoked by those who want to bring the news about the orientalist foundations of anthropology while his call to action is conveniently ignored.

I feel like picking up a chair and throwing it across the room just to emphasise that Said’s methodological program is all about how to do the the liberating work of reanalysis, knowing that this work will never be perfect and never be finished. Denying any possibility of reading against the grain, or finding the countersign (per Bronwyn Douglas), is to take colonial discourse at its word and to hand it all the easy power that it pretends to have already.

It’s also a neat pretext for denying Indigenous voices simply because you don’t like the packaging they arrive in, per Graeber and Wengrow’s critique. And quite apart from being a bit self-satisfied and activist-splainy, this denial amounts to accusing black and Indigenous anthropologists of double consciousness, or of being duped, rather than being much better informed about the dynamics of knowledge and interpretation than you are.

To paraphrase Said himself, “read a fucking book” (Said 2004 ,’The return to philology’). OK, well not exactly but that’s the gist.

Years ago, during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, I asked a professor of philology at the University of Cape Town how it was that some non-white students like himself were able to graduate at all under the apartheid regime. He said that it was simple: racist ideology loves to project itself as totalising but it never fully succeeds. This is just the kind of gritty optimism—capable of containing contradiction—that should precede the troubling task of reading colonial texts.


The predictable evolution of letter shapes

Our paper on the evolution of the Vai script and its implications for the evolution of writing is finally published in Current Anthropology here. If you can’t get behind the paywall, the preprint is here, but if you want the nice clean published version please drop me a line.

One of the best things about Current Anthropology is their policy of eliciting responses and we have commentaries from Henry Ibekwe, Andrij Rovenchak and Monica Tamariz as well as our collective reply to those responses. Here is an earlier twitter thread about the paper, and there is also a new piece about it by Colin Barras in New Scientist here (paywalled). In the meantime, enjoy Julia Bespamyatnykh’s excellent animation of three Vai letters evolving before your eyes.


The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2021

This list gets smaller each year, a sure sign that my idle reading time is diminishing. It was a year of endless pandemic chores, grant-chasing and depression. But I now have job security for 6 years and it feels like a great reprieve.

One piece needs a special mention, just because it was so surprising. This is John Semley’s account of the US postal service that somehow ends up talking about everything that ails us in this scary political moment: America, Ex Post Facto. Also, loved Sharon Old’s poem First Thanksgiving, written 16 years ago but it was new to me and it hit me very hard.




Ethics & the examined life


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How to attract emus with this one weird trick

Years ago when I was contributing to a report for a native title claim in the Pilbara, I came across this passage written by Émile Clement over a century ago:

Clement, Emile. 1904. “Ethnographical notes on the Western-Australian Aborigines: With a descriptive catalogue of a collection of
ethnographical objects from Western Australia by J.D.E Schmeltz.”  Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie 16 (1/2):1-29.

The phrase I enjoy the most is: “[t]he Emu, being a very inquisitive bird…”. Emus certainly have a funny way of looking at you sidewise like a chook calculating the odds that you will drop part of your sandwich. As a child, my sister was about to bite into a whole tomato when an inquisitive emu approached her from behind and snatched the tomato out of her hand. She turned to see a tomato-shaped bulge travelling slowly down its neck.

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The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2020

It’s much smaller list this year, probably because of all the madness: Covid, homeschooling, a book manuscript, grant applications, illness. For all these reasons I did a lot less of my usual idle and aimless reading. The stand-out article is Married (Happily) With Issues (even though it was published yonks ago), and I loved the poem Good Bones by Maggie Smith. 



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Message stick news

I’ve been terrible at updating this blog this year, for obvious reasons, but I’m going to spell them out anyway as succinctly as possible: pandemic, homeschooling, book manuscript, funding applications.

A round-up of recent news:

Over and out.

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A not so skinny kinship book

This book came for me in the mail. First contemplated five years ago, it’s now an object you can hold in your hands — if that’s your fetish. For everyone else, you can download it for free here. The front cover is by Shirley Purdie and represents the Gija subsection system.

There are twelve authors, spanning the length and breadth of linguistics and linguistic anthropology in Australia. I’m especially happy to be on a chapter with the late and great Luise Hercus, even if my input was largely to do with mapping. Luise was always the common point of reference for Australianist linguistics and her summer lunch parties were legendary. She is, I’m sure, the only person I will ever know to have sustained a wombat-related injury. Continue reading


What is linguistic anthropology?

I have been reflecting recently on the aims of linguistic anthropology as a practice. It strikes me that the concept can mean very different things to different people, and much of this varied intellectual activity gets washed out in its its confluence with other better-defined disciplines and methods.

So for what it’s worth, this post is an effort to define what I believe makes linguistic anthropology distinctive and why it is worth pursuing.

What it is

Beliefs about language and how it relates to the world

Linguistic anthropology is all about the social meaning of language and language behaviours. To put this another way, it is concerned with the commonsense beliefs that people hold about the possibilities of language and how these beliefs are put into practice or expressed as norms. Key to this understanding is a recognition of the diverse strangeness of human beings. Men belonging to certain Indigenous Australian communities have a special lexicon to be used within earshot of their mothers-in-law while an activist community in Sweden has an agreed-upon vocabulary for reinforcing values of gender equality. A decision to use one language over another in a multilingual north Indian workplace may be motivated by deference, enmity, national politics or a conviction that a given language has an intrinsic power to encapsulate certain ideas while another is deficient. In some parts of the world, people communicate with their pets while others converse with the dead. Malagasy peasants use French to address their cattle, or when drunk and boasting. For the most part, these commonsense assumptions could easily be described as ‘language ideologies’, a term defined by Kathryn Woolard as the “socially, politically, and morally loaded cultural assumptions about the way that language works in social life and about the role of particular linguistic forms in a given society”.

Linguistic anthropologists do not care so much about whether any of these beliefs are empirically true, nor whether the practices that stem from them are reasonable. They are much more interested in how such beliefs and practices maintain coherence within their own everyday contexts. In other words, linguistic anthropologists are interested in all the ways in which we systematically connect language to other aspects of our lives: how we organise ourselves as social creatures, how we signal belonging and exclusion, or how we express our values.

Beliefs about the world and how they are enacted through language

Linguistic anthropologists understand that language is not merely representing information in a straightforward denotative way, but is also doing something in the world. That is, they see language-use as a kind of social action.

Mary Douglas once wrote that “it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts”. Of course, symbolic acts are not necessarily isomorphic with linguistic acts but in practice they are almost always mediated by language in important ways. As Kathryn Graber put it, a “linguistic anthropologist is more likely to take as her starting point the assumption that, through evaluative language and other forms of interaction, we do nothing less than constitute ourselves”. Others have expressed the same kinds of perspectives: that “social life and its materiality are constituted through signifying practices” (Gal 1998); that “social action requires a semiotic basis” (Gal & Irvine 2019); and that language is not “removed from the social structures and processes” but is itself a “form of social action that plays a creative role in the social reproduction of cultural forms” (Kroskrity 2008). I think my favourite account is provided by Tomlinson and Makihara who present this stance as a kind or reverse Whorfianism whereby “language structure does not necessarily shape social reality as an earlier variety of Whorfian linguistic relativism would describe it, but rather that what people do with language has the potential to change social reality, as well as to change language structure” (Tomlinson & Makihara 2009).

This amusing chart by twitterer @koutchoukalimar based on @kjhealy (here) illustrates just how linguistic anthropology can be so profoundly mischaracterised in this way, but I’m posting it here because it’s still pretty funny.


What it ain’t

For me, linguistic anthropology is first and foremost a form of anthropological knowledge. It analyses language and language-use as a means to understand something about people. This contrasts with what might be called ‘anthropological linguistics’ which gazes in the other direction: it takes human diversity as a starting point for understanding something about language. Of course, any piece of research can be doing both things at more-or-less the same time but it is still worth making the distinction. In my view, all of linguistics as a discipline ought to be pursued as anthropological linguistics otherwise it ends up being boring at best and naïve at worst. I have much more patience for anthropology that is pursued in ignorance of linguistics. Language represents a great deal of what it means to be human but it is not everything.

Sociolinguists in the classical Labovian mould focus on variation in language use, and how differences of linguistic expression correlate, or not, with demographics or distinctions of social identity. The habit of attributing moral or aesthetic value to these real or perceived differences is, I believe, a universal tendency. But linguistic anthropologists are not content with simply cataloguing and measuring these observed differences or attitudes and then moving on. Instead, they want discover how they fit into a wider system of meaning-making, and how this system is historically situated. While sociolinguists might nod vigorously towards ethnography, it is not the aim of the game.

Descriptive and typological linguists, meanwhile, tend to treat languages as more-or-less disembodied objects of study. This is not necessarily a flaw although they are sometimes accused of sidelining and even dehumanising speakers. Their aim, however, is to deliberately extrapolate away social context the better to isolate formal characteristics. In other words, they are posing the question: What can we say about the internal structural properties of a language, or Language, that we can reliably posit in general patterned terms, without recourse to context? Linguistic anthropologists, by contrast, are interested in how these same characteristics are contextually embedded and very often socially connected to phenomena that are not strictly linguistic.

What it means to me

Linguistic anthropology’s overarching analytic frame can be summarised very simply. It’s all about associating linguistic forms with linguistic behaviours and linguistic attitudes, and then situating all three within a bigger social picture. This is another way of describing Silverstein’s concept of the the total linguistic fact. It is not, however, about drawing straightforward causal lines between the three elements. On the contrary, the ways that they are often incommensurate are particularly revealing.

In my view linguistic anthropology suffers from both under-theorisation and over-theorisation. It is over-theorised to the extent that its practitioners can be very good at coming up with increasingly refined analytic models to apply to increasingly refined (and perhaps increasingly trivial) linguistic or social phenomena. It’s under-theorised because surprisingly few can provide a confident reason for why language should provide such a critical entry point for addressing foundational anthropological questions: What does the world mean to people? How are we all similar and how are we all different? Why do we entertain ideas and behave in ways that appear to contradict common sense?

And what I’m doing with it

Language is less like a programming code distributing informational bits, and more like a multi-purpose tool that is crafted and re-crafted in the process of its use in real interactions. As a system of representation it is rigid enough to perform high-precision work under pressure, and versatile enough to adapt and change quickly. To my mind it is this peculiar property that makes language such a powerful and interesting phenomenon since it lends itself to strategic manipulations. (Enfield’s take on this is perhaps better informed: Language lends itself to strategic manipulations specifically because it is not a high-precision tool)

Languages can be imagined as evolving biological organisms, to the extent that we receive them as ready made and fully structured. This structure, and our awareness of it, presents an easy analogy for the systematicity we perceive around us in our relationships with one another and the world at large.

It is not the goal of linguistic anthropologists to reify this awareness. We do not, with Lacan, wish to claim that the “unconscious is structured like a language” nor that Eskimos have an especially nuanced appreciation of snow. Rather, we delight in the very existence of these analogies and what they entail about us as a reflective species.

For all these reasons I am interested in situations in which people actively manipulate the systematic properties of language to pursue wider social objectives. At the moment I’m exploring writing systems as a very human and very artificial extension of our communicative potential. I think, at heart, it is the artificialness of writing systems that intrigues me. After all, there is no such thing as a natural script. All writing originates in conscious creative effort, even if it can evolve in ways that are not consciously directed.

Writing may extend the potential of language but it also operates as a constraint on it, and like all good constraints it encourages formal innovation. Those who decide to write a text usually do so in the knowledge that their audience is not in the same time or place as they are. This promotes a certain self-consciousness of expression, and the very pragmatic need to contextualise and to establish conventions. But counterintuitively, writing is so often naturalised or invisibilised. Far from being a game-changer that reorganises cognition and revolutionises the dynamics of knowledge (per Jack Goody), writing is regularly deployed in defence of existing social relations and conventions (per Maurice Bloch). In this way, culture-specific literacy ideologies can end up having a similar logic to the culture-specific language ideologies, outlined above.

Writing is, however, just one kind of graphic communication device. Across the world there are graphic codes that do not encode any linguistic structure and rely on a supplementary oral channel to be activated. Such systems, including Australian message sticks, Andean khipus and north American mnemonic codes, traverse the ambiguous gap between orality and the written word. The artefacts left behind in museums may be silent, but patient historical ethnography is allowing us to reconstruct the principles of communication and restore their meanings.



Seven pieces of luggage, three planes, two trains, two days, two kids. We’re in Jena. Spring has also arrived and everything is blossoms and light – a far cry from my last visit in November when the town felt dark and empty of people.


We’ve had one exciting day when it snowed just a bit. I never realised that snow does not fall silently as the poets claim. You can hear it faintly crackling through the branches of trees before it hits the ground.


Our flat in Damensviertel is perfect and our neighbours are really the best. In amongst all the paperwork I have started pecking around the edges of the research project. I’ll keep you up to date.




“Philologia Rediviva?”

Tony Woodbury at the University of Texas passed me this recent article by Sheldon Pollock on the meaning and prospects for philology in the 21st century. And there’s a nice shout-out to Zukunftsphilologie.

In short, we may well be standing on the verge of a historic event: the inauguration of a world without philology for the first time in three thousand years. […]

… philologists must develop a new disciplinary formation, with a new intellectual core. For as defined here, philology, unlike philosophy and mathematics, has never had a disciplinary home in which its real capacities could develop. If it did achieve some measure of institutional dominance in the nineteenth-century European university, this was because of the veneration then paid to the study of the classics. […]

Beyond the academy, philology – though one that does not know its name – continues to broadly influence the public domain. It is ironic to observe, given the decline I have charted, how significant are the philological energies across the Internet on sites like “Rap Genius” (http://rap.genius.com), a self-described “crowd-sourced (and artist/producer-sourced) annotation of rap lyrics/beats, from ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to ‘To Pimp A Butterfly.’” Users, including original creators, provide annotation to the often complex lyrics of songs, as well as intertextual linkages and contextual material. The purpose of Rap Genius, originally named Rap Exegesis, is precisely to make sense of texts. It has recently been branching out to include other musical forms, as well as law, history, and more; it is, in fact, now simply named “Genius.” The site seeks to “annotate the world,” “to help us all realize the richness and depth in every line of text.” This is pure philology in terms of practice, albeit practice that as yet has little awareness of its history, theory, or method. Providing that context, and formalizing the discipline, is the role of the university; and today’s academy must also recognize and channel the energies of these popular philological enterprises. […]

Our goal is not only to enable students to gain a historical and theoretical grasp of textual understanding – to understand why Supreme Court Justice Scalia is wrong to assert, about the text called the U.S. Constitution, that “words mean what they mean,” and “their meaning doesn’t change” – but also to see the remarkable continuities in global philology, and, equally important, the differences, sometimes startling differences, in what it has meant for people to make sense of texts. We also want to show them how philology can be more than an academic discipline; indeed, it can be a way of living. You are how you read, and learning to read better – with greater precision, self-awareness, and, above all, respect for the diversity of textual truth in a world ever more unified and ever more in need of unity – means, potentially, learning to be better. […]

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