Some observations on the function of the word as tool, toy and weapon in the subculture of the American anthropologist:
It was apparent that words, particularly multisyllabic and latinate, in written and spoken form, played a vital role in the temporary community here of the American Anthropological Association, meeting through Sunday at the Washington Hilton.
Writing seemed to take precedence over speaking.Nearly all the addresses were in fact read from papers. In workshops, before work could begin, everyone present ("participants" in anthropologese) got up to three reams of papers and books with such titles as "The Socio-Economic Context of Fuelwood Use in Small Rural Communities."
A curious custom observed by a visitor: Even before the speakers were finished at a plenary session, members rushed to the stage to forage among the mimeographed papers left there. Were these people compulsive collectors? Or was it that they couldn't believe their eyes? A field study might be useful here.
A short glossary of terms favored by the community:
"Total schema of techniques": Shakespeare would have said, "Let me count the ways . . ."
"Skewed sample": You don't know what you're talking about.
"Analytical framework for analyzing determinants": I already made you a list, dummy, do I have to spell it out, too?
"Societal differentiation": There goes the neighborhood.
An eclectic tendency to borrow jargon from other disciplines was noted, as evinced by such terms as: parameters; state of the art; interfaces; modes; impact; optimal; bottom line, and "operationalize," a word of mysterious origin but eccentric charm.
Evidence that anthropologists generally prefer words in two-dimensional form also comes from their remarkable speaking habits. Most speak extremely fast, either gripping the podium or pounding on it, causing a virtual explosion on the amplifier. Some referred to their text constantly, head bobbing out of the mike's range so that the last half of every sentence was missed.
Often the subculture's private language was used. One address consisted entirely of names of other anthropologists "who could be quoted in this context" but weren't. Colleagues nodded, smiled, frowned as one invisible authority was pitted against another, erroneous ancients were conjured up and smitten to dust by contemporary magi.
More than once, an opponent rose from the audience and hurled word grenades at the speaker ("May I remind you of Openshaw?") only to have them lobbed defly back ("Ah, but I think Spencer has the last word on that . . .").
One session was concerned with whether technology was a good thing and were did it come from anyway. Some interesting ideas came out of the discussion:
"I believe the spoken language was a form of technology. The technical revolution didn't start with agriculture." -- Theodore Wertime, Smithsonian.
"Why is one person inventive and another not? . . . We forget that the cutting edge of invention may be frivolous: There was no pressing need for the pyramids, cathedrals, or men on the moon." -- Eugene Ferguson, Hagley Foundation.
And some questions: Are our ancestors to us as Dr. Frankenstein to his monster? If technological change is a battle between change and necessity, that is, if necessity is the mother of invention, whose need are we talking about? Do inventions begin as elitist toys?
Another phase of the relation between technology and cultural evolution was the rise of domestication. Here, we heard quite a bit about anthropologist's great friend, the Hunter-Gatherer. Some comments: "it's hard to figure why one group settles down (it's called sedentism now) and not another, but when a whole lot of groups do it, then something common must be going on." -- Mark Cohen, SUNNY-Plattsburgh.
"A domestication system can be a form of play too," as in Egypt, where crocodiles, baboons and even cats were tamed to no economic purpose, and in Arabia, where advanced genetic engineering was applied to horses, apparently just for the beauty of it." -- Bennet Bronson, Field Museum.
The final word belonged to moderator H. Russell Bernard, University of Florida: "Weren't humans domesticated by the requirements of the plants and animals themselves?"
Just as the apparel of this community ranged from three-piece suits to jeans and T-shirst, evidence of interest in the various sessions was worthy of study. A plenary session in the International Ballroom filled about 70 of the 1,000-plus set out, and four of the dozen places at the speakers' table.
By contrast, a workshop on Marxism and American anthropology had to be moved from a small chamber to a larger one, and there were still people lining the walls and sitting on tables. The discussion, led by the Council for Marxist Anthropology, ran from the movement's antecedents in "neo-evolution" and "cultural materialism" to prospects for the future of a Marxist-oriented discipline: "anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialists," viewing, for instance, Africa not simply as a site for kinship studies but as a laboratory for analysis of colonialism.
Some of the scheduled speakers couldn't be present because they were in Amsterdam on a commission investigating human rights violations. Speculation: Was it the prospect of being activist anthropologist that drew the crowd?