Language and Disputing
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 17: 221-237 (Volume publication date October 1988)
D Brenneis
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

“Language and Disputing” is a more sparse review than previous reviews I’ve read in that it is more directive than expositive (and shorter–10 pages of text).  Whereas in “Death: A Cross Cultural Study” the writers list classical schools of thought regarding the study of death followed by a discussion of each, the writer in “Language and Disputing” would direct one to a source in which a good discussion of classical schools could be found along with a sentence or two as to what makes that source of particular interest.  While I learned a lot about the types of literature available in the area of language and disputing, there was less to be soaked up from this review on its face.  Still there was enough to enrich and inform my reading and experiences.

Brenneis’ discussion of a debate between legal anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists concerning which research data is most important to share with the public provides a parallel to a discussion of literary writing.  Brenneis notes that legal anthropologists tend to focus on what is being said believing the language to be fairly transparent, while linguistic anthropologists tend to focus on how it is being said believing that analysis of verbatim language is necessary to interpretation.  A study of literature teaches and reinforces the value of both those views.  When studying the plays of Shakespeare one learns the value of the more transparent story as well as the one to be had in the subtext.  Further, one learns the value of the interaction between the two and how the one informs the other.  Brenneis makes an observation about dispute language that could equally apply to the study of literature:

Understanding the role of dispute language requires attention not only to what is said but also to how it is said and to how various speakers’ performances are linked.

When I read the above quote, I was immediately put in mind of a discussion on Roger Ebert’s blog that lead to the short volley regarding the value of literature mentioned below.  Ebert wrote a posts titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art” with a followup post about an informal poll asking his readers to choose whether they valued “a great video game” over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Video games 13, 823, Huck Finn, 8,088.”  One commenter to the latter post asks, among other things, “How are you improved in any way after reading Huck Finn, as opposed to reading a plot summary of the book?” Ebert gives this response:

Plot summary? A book is not about what it is about. It’s about how it’s about it.

I suppose this sounds “elitist,” but here goes: Based on your comment, you have never learned to read.

Ebert’s response echoes Brenneis’ observation above.  One could write that dispute language isn’t just about what it’s about.  It’s about how it’s about it.  Brenneis continues with echoes of Ebert:

While past events may be discussed and accounted for in court testimony such language is about (Brenneis’ emphasis) earlier stages; it does not reproduce what was actually said.”

Having the details or “plot summary” of a dispute is one part, but the exact wording of the dispute, the pattern of the volley between disputants, the tone, the rhythm, provide valuable interpretive information.  In reading literature one learns about text, subtext, fine distinctions between synonyms, how shades of meaning can create hills and valleys of ambiguity.

Reading Brenneis didn’t just give me insight on the value of good literature, I also found a pithy example of what makes good television good.  Good television comments on and illuminates the workings of culture.  Brenneis writes the following:

Schiffrin’s examination of the characteristics and functions of argument in Jewish American conversation has been particularly effective in showing that apparently contentious speech can further sociability as well as disagreement.

An episode of the television show Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”, provides a perfect illustration of Schiffrin’s findings.  The character Martin says of the apparently contentious interaction between Frasier’s Jewish girlfriend and her mother that it was “all emotional and messy and then they’re hugging and then it’s all over.”  When Frasier and Martin find themselves in a similar conversation, they discover that they lack the (Jewish) cultural skills to arrive at the same sociable result:

A transcript of this episode from season six of Frasier can he found here.

(In case you’re wondering: 1. I believe that video gaming can be art, not to say that there is a good example of that just yet.  2. Currently, I would chose Huck Finn over a great video game.   This discussion over at Ebert’s blog is actually pretty rich with thoughtful commentary and makes for a good place to observe dispute language in action, both high and low brow.  Huck Finn is the book mentioned because Mark Twain delayed finishing Huck Finn in favor of working on a game he was developing,  prompting Ebert to assert that no game would be worth not having Huck Finn.)