Don Quixote’s adventures in his second expedition usually follow a pattern of action that in itself is very simple: a visual stimulus; a misinterpretation of the stimulus by Quixote in terms of his chivalric compulsions; a realistic correction by Sancho Panza, overridden by his master’s complacent imaginative expertise; a challenge; a battle and its result; and a conclusion, in the form of a highly entertaining discussion between Quixote and Sancho, that the reader gets into the habit of eagerly awaiting.
What he means is:
In the second expedition, Don Quixote’s adventures have a simple pattern: something happens, Quixote misinterprets it in his chivalric way, Sancho Panza corrects him, Quixote objects, a battle ensues, discussion follows, the reader is pleased.
Never mind. It’s possible his editors at the Cambridge University Press insist that prose meet air pressure guidelines issued by the Press. Or perhaps this sort of thing now comes from Brussels.
What I like about Watt’s remark is how effectively he takes us to the heart of Cervante’s enterprise. He gives us the form behind the text, the hidden structure of the story. This is precisely the sort of thing we do not see at first. And we look to someone like Watt to see through the surface of the text to pattern from which it springs. (Let me say Watt does this brilliant well and I hope he will forgive my impertinence.)
This is what anthropologists are for. They look at cultures, not at texts. And when they make themselves useful, it is because they can "see into" the cultural thing (a movie, a celebrity, a brand, a trend, for instance) and say what makes it what it is. They are looking for the essentials that define it. For instance, they are trying to say as clearly as possible who John Cusack is as an actor, so that they can say, as clearly as possible, how he differs from, say, from any of the actors who starred in The Usual Suspects (Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro). Is this useful? If you are casting a Hollywood movie, it is, I believe, very useful. Art depends upon it. Commerce depends upon it.
Now, you would think this would be a pretty simple statement of what anthropology is, but I must tell you that I am almost the only anthropologist who believes it anymore. This is because most of the field has fallen under the dark spell of the continental philosophers, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and under this baleful influence they sleep. Every so often they rouse themselves to write an act of moral, political or epistemological self recrimination, and persuaded that the old kind of anthropology is indeed unlawful and unclean, they return to their fitful, tortured slumber.
But wait, before they go, they will sometimes leave us prose like this:
It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism. (Stephen Tyler, ref. below, quote from The Bad Writing Contest, ref. below)
Not everyone is prepared to suffer the concussive effect of these grenades. Denis Dutton held a bad writing contest in the 1990s. (Tyler won 2nd place in 1997.) And Professor Dutton had this to say about another winner:
Thus in A Defense of Poetry, English Prof. Paul Fry writes: “It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness — rather than the will to power — of its fall into conceptuality.” If readers are baffled by a phrase like “disclosing the absentation of actuality,” they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.
Anthropologists, when they bought the continental lie, took up showing off in a big way. To be honest, there was much else to do. Anthropology was pretty much extinct. Anthropologists could no longer make assertion about the world. The long trek started by the likes of Morgan and Spencer in the 19th century was over. The field was now just so many skateboarders working on their Ollie. (And let me reassure Dr. Tyler that I mean this impertinence with near Victorian sincerity.) As a result, anthropology is in a bit of a shambles and those who would borrow from anthropology must choose with care. (Think of this as the last helicopter out.)
Let’s say this as a minimum. Anthropology looks for the core of the thing, it’s defining characteristics, it’s essence. And this means usually a set of propositions that together make an argument which may then be judged as a whole and by its parts. This sounds a little general, I’m sure. Have a look, if you wouldn’t mind, at my post on the "artisanal trend" for a case in point.
No, it isn’t perfect. Yes, I am sure it generalizing in a way that offends the delicate sensibilities of the postmodern anthropologist, but then it doesn’t pretend to be anything but a provisional way of looking at things, altogether risible where it not so very much better than nothing (and delirium). This anthropological approach is rough and ready. It intellectually opportunistic, slapping together concepts and insights like a Thor Heyerdahl hoping for landfall soon, because, let’s face it, this implausible floating machine isn’t floating very much longer. But that is the point of the exercise. We are not seeking perfection. We are seeking to construct an idea just robust enough to get us from confusion to clarity. Once we get there, it can gracefully decay on the beach for all we care, the object now of nothing more than touristic curiosity. "TThey got here on that?" (I am assuming that most of the readers of this blog are themselves creatures who live by their wits, that they are people who are constantly being asked to come up with a provisional, "actionable" way of looking at things often by lunch time and more often right now.)
Were my account more learned, elegant, sophisticated, it would look exactly the classic liberal arts notion of the "argument." And it is I think just entirely astonishing that anyone should now be called upon to describe what an "argument" is. I mean, really. To walk away from the intellectual machinery (if you will) that brought us the magnificent ideas that make us possible, it’s really, well, just bizarre. I picture Watson and Crick sitting at the Double Eagle pub in Cambridge. One of them reaches into the envelope that contains the grainy X-ray and our first glimpse of DNA. The other say, "so what do we have?" The reply, "Oh, geez, I can’t tell. You know…. Couldn’t be. F*ck it. How about another pint." For all of its vaunted philosophy, the postmodernists’ repudiation of clarity was every bit as cavalier as this." (Impertinence to Watson and Crick devoutly regretted.)
It makes me think of a conversation I had with a student at McGill. I was a guest lecturer in her class, and after I finished speaking, she asked a question. Well, no, not a question, really. She raised a number of issues in a manner so, well, allusive that it wasn’t clear what the issues were. And there were lots of issues, it turned out, and after awhile….I didn’t know what to think. You can imagine me with my swiss-army-knife practicality, this was frustrating and I asked, please would she clarify?’ She took this as clearance to do another couple of laps around the airfield. And a barrel roll or two. But no, no question. My patience (to say nothing of Dutton’s "natural humility") began to wear a little and I said, "I’m sorry, what is the question?" As she set out on another lonely journey, it became clear that for this student of the new liberal arts, illumination came from many remarks heaped upon a rhetorical bonfire out of which sparks must eventually fly penetrating and illuminating the mind of the listener. But not me. Not my mind. No, the only spark coming my way was a dismal one: she was actually incapable of asking a question, that she was a captive of the sleeping kingdom.
The point of every formal intellectual exercise is to decide what the question is, to survey the answer "options," to refine or reform the questions where necessary, to work out our propositions and refine and reform those too. This is what Western thinkers are so very good at. This is precisely why Western thought managed, in the notion of Levi-Strauss, to escape circularities and insularities of "wild thought" and find its way to ideas that were ever more transparent to a reality. And this of course is the first principle of post modernism, that there is no real real, everything is constructed, idea is everything. To think that this "discourse" is largely composed on a computer which is if nothing else, a demonstration of the ability of IBM labs to make electrical charges dance with unfailing precision on the head of a pin, well, it’s sad and strange. And it does make you wonder about issues of "fitness for office." This creatures of the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, should we not take the university away from them? Pay them off if need be. But for God’s sake, send them home. They have wrecked the liberal arts. They have made it near impossible to study contemporary culture. This is to say they have imposed opacity at two of the places we hope for light.
Oh, but there’s me on my hobby horse again. Sorry. Grant, dude. (And I know you inner ear supplied this, but popular culture species this particular vocalization of "dude" as an extenuated, falling U, the entreaty U, let’s call it.) All I mean to say here is that for our purposes anthropology operates like a glass bottom boat. (I know. I know. Enough with all the helicopters, airfields, kingdoms and now, geez, glass bottom boats! Dude! I am hoping you issued your own "mixed metaphor advisory" a couple of hundred words ago. Apply and use snow chains for remaining paragraphs.)
But in the spirit of intellectual opportunism, glass bottom boat is apt. Before the act of anthropological analysis, the object of our interest is obscured by a shifting surfaces and refracting light. After our analysis, it is evident, there, clear to the eye. Sure, there may be something illusory about this clarity, but anything is better than an English professor showing off. (Because finally he knows what the pragmatist lives by, nothing comes of nothing.)
There I go again. Sorry. Here’s what I want to say. To think like an anthropologist, it is necessary to observe the world as carefully as you can. (Use "noticing" as a key work on this blog for more on this step.) And then it is to decide what we might say about what we think we see. And it is then to proceed with the construction of several propositions as a kind of scaffolding of the most general, powerful and clear things we think we can say about the topic at hand.
The argument is propositional and segmental. It is made up of working parts any one of which may be scrutinized and in the popular phrase "swapped out." There is always a calculation being performed as the argument is being worked and reworked. Does this particular intellectual intervention succeed in fixing the part only to ruin the whole. At some point, we may have to decide the thing is a mess. "Put the argument down and walk away."
There is always also Kuhnian grounds for starting again. Because there may be something in our "problem set" that that doesn’t quite make sense, an anomaly that resists our explanatory scheme. And if we stop and honor it, that is to say, if we stop and think the things that make it clear instead of anamolous, this can reconfigure the explanation altogether. And often of course this comes all of sudden, as if done by elves while we sleep. Suddenly, we get it. (See Kuhn’s wonderfully clear idea of paradigms and anomalies in The Structure of Scientific Revolution.)
But it’s not only anomalies that must be honored. The ordinary, run of the mill, data at hand must be honored too. We must resist the temptation to haul out our favorite explanation because, in that wonderful phrase, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. But not to us. No, we intend to find the hammer assumed by these nails. Or invent it, if it does not exist.
But we are responsible not just to the data, anomalous or standard issue. We are also in possession of a set of things we think about the world. These are assumptions but because we have used them over and over and tested them over and over, they have a better-than-assumption status. Of all the ideas we have ever thought and used, these are our favorite, the ones with the greatest wattage. But of course, any given project will serve as an opportunity to rework even these.
Then comes a bit for clarity. We go back and remove everything the reader doesn’t need to know or hear. This is a "signal to noise" issue. The more content we can take out of the signal, the clearer we make it. This notion of parsimony was long ago abandoned by English professors because otherwise ollies are out of the question. And in a more perfect world, more sincere world, I would go back and clear up this text, and give it clarity and bullet points and all the things our clients demand of us. I would particularly remove all the taunting of the postmodernists, because, really, who cares? I know I don’t.
Dutton, Denis. The Bad Writing Contest. here.
Tyler, Stephen. 1986. Post-modern ethnography: from document of the occult to occult document. in Writing Culture, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. University of California Press.
Watt, Ian. 1996. Myths of Modern Individualism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
For more on the English Professor’s Ollie, see the Wikipedia entry here.
Thanks to Jonathan Feinberg and his fine program Wordle at Wordle.net for the opening image.