Darwin-L Message Log 5:216 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<5:216>From fwg1@cornell.edu  Sun Jan 30 12:43:32 1994

Date: Sun, 30 Jan 1994 13:48:02 -0500
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: fwg1@cornell.edu (Frederic W. Gleach)
Subject: Culture, material and otherwise

An introduction, in the spirit of the times: I am an historical
anthropologist, also interested in the history of anthropology and related
disciplines (in history, of course, I include everything up to and
including tomorrow).  While I have considerable experience in archaeology,
and a smattering of linguistics and physical anthropology, my work centers
on questions of that great anthropological abstraction, culture.  In more
specific terms, I study native North America--particularly Algonquian
groups-- and its relations to the now-dominant immigrant populations, which
means I also study colonial European cultural history.  Collateral
interests include religion, authority, trade, and warfare as they are
culturally constructed in particular contexts.  I should also note that I
left ANTHRO-L at the end of the year because I was tired of being swamped
by badly written, self-indulgent, meaningless postings while trying to
follow one of the few interesting arguments.  Thanks to Bob O'Hara (and
DARWIN-L participants!) for running a list that is open in mind and spirit
and consistently interesting!

Now to business.  On 28 Jan Matt Tomaso (who should not be seen as included
in my condemnation of ANTHRO-L!) wrote:

>If you've gotten this far into this post, perhaps you will even have the
>patience/tenacity to try to grapple with this question:  What if we reduce the
>argument and invert it such that we can look at culture itself as nothing more
>than a kind of dynamic technology, or an 'apparatus of adaptation'?

This, I think, is a rather limited view of culture.  The way I use it,
culture is the means by which meaning is created, by which perception is
turned into conception (the argument follows Sahlins in _Culture and
Practical Reason_, and is related to the linguistic and semiotic work of
folks such as Peirce, Saussure, and Sapir).  Items of material culture are
thus manifestations and/or instantiations of culture, and can be read as
such; they encode culture in a material form.  My favorite classroom
example here is a medieval German/nineteenth-century Sudanese sword that I
have, through which one can "read" ideas of technology (metallurgy, the
physics of edged weapons), social interaction (trade patterns,
inheritance), and aesthetics (European as compared to Sudanese), among many
others.  All of these kinds of meanings--culturally- constructed,
context-specific--can be "read" if you know the "language."

Note that this use of culture does not necessarily negate a biological
role.  Chomsky's work is interesting here, suggesting that structures of
the brain may shape the ways meaning can be constructed.  This is NOT the
old biology=culture argument.

I just noticed the time, and have to run, but let me just say for now that
I see no benefit to impoverishing culture by treating it in a mechanistic
way as a "technology" or an "apparatus."  There are other conceptions of
reality out there that we as anthropologists are supposed to deal with that
can only be seen as wrong or impoverished if one takes this view.  The
inclusive definitions/understandings of reality of native America, for
instance.  I would argue that we need these other perspectives not just to
study, but to actually learn from.  But for now I'll turn the podium over
to others. . . .

Frederic W. Gleach                      I long ago decided that anything that
fwg1@cornell.edu                        could be finished in my lifetime was
                                        necessarily too small an affair to
Anthropology Department                 engross my full interest.
Cornell University
(607) 255-6779
                                        --Ernest Dewitt Burton

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