Anthropologists use the term “poetics” to refer to all manner of creative self-expression. Since how we express ourselves is based on our sense of self and identity, you can learn a lot about what people in another culture think about themselves. One important way people lay claim to power (particularly if they’re in a subordinate position in society) is through the production and maintenance of identities. In the case of the Rastafari those identities are always bound up in opposition to what they perceive as mainstream society.
Take for instance this image, drawn from the ethnography Soul Rebels:
Lewis notes that some Rasta, “freely used Christian imagery to sustain belief in Rastafari.” In this folk painting depicting the Biblical last supper (a common Christian image with a long history in European art traditions) all the persons represented are Black men with dreadlocks. What might be the political and religious significance of this painting for the Rasta? What does its racial and colonial inversion say about Rasta culture and how they see themselves?
During his visit to the most destitute Rasta who squat on the beach beneath a pier, the author engages in a reasoning session, this time with David and Lion, in which the following exchange takes place:
The light fades. More silence. The bay water slaps against the pilings. A rat tears across the planks and startles me. I jump. Lion, however, admonishes me with a reminder that the rat is only a creature.
“The barber shop is the mark of the beast. Comb and razor conquer. The wealth of Jah is with locks, in fullness of his company.”
All nod in agreement. I mention that my understanding is increasing.
“Be careful with words, brother,” Lion says, “overstand not understand. I people are forward people not backward.”
Lion seems to be talking in poetry here. The Rastas are well known for taking mundane everyday things and making them into political and religious statements. What do you think Lion is getting at in the figurative language of his command to “overstand not understand”? How is this play on words also a reflection of his beliefs and worldview?
In the comments section below, offer your reaction and interpretation to either of these examples. What do you think is going on here? How can the study of poetics provide another avenue for exploring cultures different than our own?
Much like our method of studying culture, the study of language in anthropology is broad and inclusive of multiple perspectives. The assigned readings cover the definition of language (not an easy task), its evolution as a biological and cultural phenomenon, and sociolinguistics – or the way that we use speech in various ways depending on social circumstances.
Of course its impossible to get inside someone else’s head and know what they’re thinking, but by means of language anthropologists can directly interact with and query people from other cultures to learn why they do the things they do. Language is such an important window into people’s inner lives that the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggested that language itself structures how people think.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that like the grooves in a vinyl record, different language predisposes people to thinking and acting in particular ways. Today this has become something of an old fashioned idea, but it is still provocative to contemplate.
In this short animated lecture, MIT psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that the relationship between language and thought can be understood in the way veiled language is used to mediate diverse social relationships by playing with mutual knowledge.
Are we constrained by language, or aren’t we?
In the comments section below respond to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Pinker’s modern update, addressing either is sufficient. Is our thought structured by the syntax of the language(s) we speak? When you hear your mind’s voice in your own head I presume it is in English. Does that mean you are thinking English thoughts right now?
Imagine that you are dead and your loved ones are preparing to bury you in the ground. What do you think those surviving you will put in your grave with you? How will they express who you are and their relationships to you in material items. Think about your family and your friends, both your old friends and your college friends.
Items such as these are termed “grave goods” and archaeologists can learn a lot about a culture based on the kinds of grave goods they provide to their dead. How might future archaeologists interpret the items you’ve chosen to be buried with?
Leave a thoughtful response in the comments section below. The due date is Thursday, March 7 at noon.
Here’s a brief lecture by Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford who also studies baboons and other primates. In this lecture he talks about aggression, theory of mind, the golden rule, empathy, anticipation, and culture as examples of human behaviors that also overlap with animal behaviors. Then after showing you how animal-like our behaviors really are he highlights how humans abstract or elaborate upon each of these behavioral qualities in ways that exceed animals.
He’s a great story teller and speaker! You’ll enjoy this. It’s only about 30 mins. You can watch it on your phone if you want. Cue it to 4’50″ in and you can skip the guy who comes out to introduce him.
Now, your assignment is to leave a remark in the comments section below. The website will prompt you to leave your name. Be sure to do this! That is how I will see you’ve completed the assignment. The deadline for leaving a thoughtful comment is Monday morning at midnight.
I want you to reflect on the place of humans in the natural world.
- Which do you think is more significant? Our similarities to the other animals, or our differences?
- How does it make you feel to consider that humans are not so different from the rest of life on earth?
- What do you think about Sapolsky’s conclusion that humans are defined by the ability to hold contradictory beliefs? Can you think of a better essential difference?
- Is there anything in this video that confuses you or doesn’t make sense? What point do you want to be better explained?
Feel free to share web links in your comment if they’re relevant to the point you’re trying to make. I look forward to reading your responses.
This post contains encyclopedia entries on the American eugenics movement, biological determinism, Johann Blumenbach and Carols Linnaeus, Francis Galton, genocide, and racial taxonomy. Continue reading
Homo floresiensis presents many challenges to our understanding of the story of human origins. Here are the YouTube versions of the original NOVA documentary, “Alien from Earth”. If the PBS site is not playing the video you can watch it here. Also you can rent the disk through Netflix, but it’s not streaming yet.
If you’d like to learn more about Homo floresiensis there is a collection of news stories from the journal Science posted on Blackboard.
Here I’m reblogging a post that originally appeared on my professional blog, Savage Minds, but it was originally a part of my kinship lecture for ANTR 110. I only cut it because there was too much material to cover and doing these Bible stories justice is quite time consuming. Fortunately I can offer it to you here for you to enjoy on your lunch break, or whatever.
Families are at the center of our lives, they make us who we are. So its interesting to note that in different cultures people have different ideas about who counts as family, what their roles ought to be within the collective, and what sorts of rights and obligations they ought to have over one another.
Many of my students find patrilineal descent, which flows from fathers to offspring, to be somewhat intuitive. After all they behave in a similar way to our tradition of passing down surnames and you all can anticipate how patrilineality might coincide with a a socio-economic system that favors powerful fathers and husbands. But matilineal descent which flows from mothers to offspring are strange, its illogic manifest most clearly in the responsibilities for discipline granted to resource providers such as uncles and brothers, with weaker bonds ascribed to biological fathers.
Matrilineality seems exotic, but in fact some examples of it can easily be found in one of the most ancient charter documents of “Western Civilization.” Bereishit (Genesis), the first book of the Torah (Old Testament).
I don’t know if you’ve ever just sat down and read a whole lot of the Bible. My knowledge of it is fairly limited. I am familiar with Genesis which is distinguished by its engaging mythic narratives that rewards rereading. These incredibly evocative and powerful stories caught the imagination of underground cartoonist R.Crumb and inspired him to complete a fully illustrated Book of Genesis. The Crumb illustrations, thick and fleshy, help out to humanize the characters especially for people who aren’t already familiar with the stories.
Now granted, what I’m about to do is not the usual way one reads Genesis. I’m only doing this in order to make some points about matrilineality, not to claim some sort of religious insight.