On the Language of Anthropology. Or, More Accurately, Some Cliches, and Why They’re Not So Bad After All

Anthropology is an ironic discipline.

Anthropology requires its adherents to balance cynicism with an unyielding faith in mankind to reveal -some- kind of truth about the human condition. It also, as one of my former professors stated, is riddled with bizarre dogmatisms and ancestor worship. Anthropologists are typically regarded as an off-kilter, shamanic force for progressive change, yet many of its texts cling to the law of the land set forth by our ancestors nearly 100 years previous. Even the most radical works must bow to their predecessors in some form or another. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many times, a fledgling anthropologist will steep his or her studies a little too deep in the quotations of those who came before. Which, I suppose, is just a natural part of learning how to write.

I was eager to agree with my professor at the time, as it simultaneously allowed me to distance myself from the more mundane readings were assigned as well as rung true to some of the observations I had made from my fellow classmates.

So there’s been a sort of moving away, or breaking free, from these strictures in the works of today’s most promising anthropologists. This has resulted in an experimental new vocabulary that nonetheless is steeped in the likes of Foucault and co. And many of these early attempts to weave a new vocabulary… are kind of annoying. To me, anyway. It’s really petty of me to say that, because this new vocabulary (as well as a couple of old, timeless tropes) are necessary because it provides the foundation for new modes of thought.

As a result, I’m using this article to explore why I cringe a little when I read about bodies for the umpteenth time. And at the same time, I’m reconciling the fact that they’re words we have to live with to make intellectual progress.

This article is not meant to be a call to action – though you’re welcome to come up with new words and tropes on your own. Rather, I’m inviting others to question how the language of anthropology might change in the near future, as well as ponder what those shifts might say about our relationship with other living (and, as is becoming the trend, non-living) things in the world.

1. Bodies, Embodiment, Bodied Subjects

The object and the subject are eternal forces in Epistemology. It’s the relationship upon which the study is founded: things (objects) are acted upon by the interpretations of others (subject, or subjectivities). From this observation comes the concept of the body, happens to be one of the core tenets of anthropology. In the words of Michel Foucault, bodies (human, in classical cases, but now pretty much anything able to be interpreted these days) are “objects” of knowledge, which are shaped by the discursive practices of other bodies as they attempt to make sense of the world.

The concept of the body has gone on to form the basis for numerous Anthropological sub-disciplines and movements. It’s especially crucial to Feminist theory; which, despite what many might think, is also about the plays of power exercised over all kinds of bodies.

Bodies and embodiment aren’t  terms that annoy or irritate me in any way. But one does begin to question whether some Anthropologist or philosopher out there will offer some other conception of the ‘self’ as we know it, one that will catch on to perform equally impressive (and liberating) work as has been done in Feminist theory and other related fields. It also leads us to our next point:
2. Unraveling/Unpacking

If there’s one thing anthropologists love to do more than bodying things, it’s unraveling those bodies. With a little skill and a lot of postulation, we can decipher the Pharaoh’s Curse inscribed upon these bodies after unraveling them, while warding off the curses of generalization and oversimplification in the process.

Unraveling and unpacking are terms lifted directly from the Art world. I need not delve into the history of who used the terms first, since I’m sure they could be attributed to any number of art critics. What’s important to know is that it basically means dissecting and laying bare as many symbols within an artistic work as possible. Then the critic can examine these symbols, extrapolate their potential meanings, ponder how those meanings play into one another in the work of art, and then offer broader possibilities as to what those symbols might mean about our relationship with the world.

This process slots nicely into the existing toolkit of anthropology. So well, in fact, that the terms are used -a lot- in the discipline. Where there’s symbol, there’s unpacking of symbol. And when symbols are unpacked, their components are traced to the signifiers that give them cultural meaning.

They really are great terms. Can we replace them with another word that implies deconstruction? Will we need another term for the act of analyzing symbols and the roles they might play in the pursuit of whatever it is humans like to do (Barthes postulated that this was freedom, in all that implies)? I’m not sure. This one doesn’t bother me that much, until I read it 50 or so times in a book. And it serves such a laudable purpose. How could we dispose of our unpackings and unravelings?

3. Gerund-ing

This trope isn’t restricted to any particular example, but the one that immediately comes to my mind is “worlding.” Basically, it’s the act of turning nouns or objects into active subjects by ascribing verb-like traits to them, which is best done through the power of the gerund (-ing on the end of a noun). The more cynical among us might see it as a form of quasi-anthropomorphism, which is a topic of endless debate in the anthropological community.

Take the case of worlding. Worlding, as defined by Professor Mei Zhan in her comparative study of traditional Chinese medicine and institutional medicine, Other-Worldly, asserts that “the world takes place in things;” (Mei 22-23) it’s actually a term originally coined by Martin Heidegger to emphasize the fact that the concepts humans within communities interpret, and the ways in which they interpret them, contribute to the production of knowledge systems that define specific worlds. It’s a more holistic term for describing the phenomena of ‘globalization’ and ‘acculturation’ that otherwise confine humanity to one track of perceiving their immediate and distant surroundings.

By adding the -ing suffix to the concept of a ‘world’ (a realm, a place to be and in which humans exist, rather than the planet Earth as a whole), Heidegger and Mei give the results of spinning together realities a certain degree of agency. Gerunds imbue seeingly inert objects with unpredictable mobility, thereby reminding us that the concepts that we deem controllable (through words) have, in fact, lives of their own.

Gerunding, as it turns out, is actually a very useful tool in the world of anthropology. It allows us to condense the nebulous concept of “these human and non-human actors are working in tandem to produce culturally significant phenomena” into a single word. And maybe that’s what rustles me whenever I read about the act of ing-ing. Whenever I read about worlding, I think of pedagogical shorthand, like a Bible Verse. It reminds me of a concept that, upon its utterance, conveys a constellation of thought, but one that has been reduced to a mere symbol removed from the intellectual grist from which it came.

At that point, I begin to feel like George Orwell despising his Esperanto-speaking aunt and uncle at a young age. But maybe I just need to get over myself. Gerunding complex concepts is an effective stopgap when you’re trying to explain said concepts to academics and non-academics alike, as it provides a beacon for summoning forth messy ruminations on humanity (and all of their metaphysical baggage) wherever you are in the book. Maybe as we better come to understand concepts like worlding and accept them as natural occurrences in daily life will we move beyond the gerund.

But then there’s the conundrum of taking human actions for granted. Isn’t that pedagogical itself? The madness never ends.

4. Shifty

I’m not really sure where this came from. The earliest mention I can find is from Anthropology Through the Looking-Glass by Michael Herzfeld, who attributes “shifty” to a book by James Boon titled Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures. Meriam-Webster gives the following defintion of ‘shifty’:

: having an appearance or way of behaving that seems dishonest
: difficult to catch : able to move and change directions quickly

Anthropologists tend to favor the latter definition when employing ‘shifty’ in their works. The most recent example of ‘shifty’ that I’ve read is from Gabriella Coleman’s excellent ethnography of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Face of Anonymous. Here, the word shifty takes on both of the above meanings, as anyone who has spent any length of time in even the most pedestrian corners of the Internet can testify.

When something is shifty in the world of anthropology, it means that it is indeterminate. Its identity is fluid, subject to change, and unable to be fully grasped by those domineering entities we call humans. It’s a darling phrase among anthropologists because it also implies mischievousness in the actors we normally take at face value.

In addition to the aforementioned ancestor worship, there’s no shortage of reverence for the Trickster figure among anthropologists (of which I am happily guilty). Things being shifty reaffirms the presence of the Trickster in our daily lives. Anthropologists do take great pleasure in making others feel unstable when they are confronted with the instability of their own societies, after all.

So if I, too, frequently indulge in the fae sensibilities of the Trickster, why does the word ‘shifty’ make me grimace? Maybe it reminds me of myself, and that I don’t have the security to face my own guilty pleasures (somehow I doubt this is the case). Or maybe it’s the mental image that it conjures, that of an elderly fellow at a keyboard (or typing machine) indulging in a little private mischief as they traverse the boundaries between human worlds.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that my general dislike for the word ‘shifty’ is petty. It’s a good word for describing the more incomprehensible, untameable sectors of our societies. Perhaps we can find different words that express different angles of this insight, though.

There are plenty of other examples we could expound upon, but these four tropes are the ones I see time and time again that make me think, “Wow, this was really creative 100 pages ago.” But others may not share my feeling on the matter. In the end, the author gets his or her point across, and we gain a new perspective on humanity as a result.

That’s why I bothered to obsess over these words in the first place. If phrases like ‘shifty’ and the act of gerunding our subjects represents certain ideas about the world (that it’s constantly being redefined by an infinite number of actors, both alive and inanimate, working with one another), then is it possible that our perspectives on human societies will radically change in the next few years? What kind of language shifts will accompany those changes?

I can’t say for certain. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and watch this shiftiness unfold.