Entries tagged with “literacy

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.)

When I started writing yesterday, I had in mind still that I would blog for multiple days about reading “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.” It has since become clear to me that, on a practical level, it would be better to have all writing finished by Monday. Otherwise, I will be tempted to linger too long on a subject and likely fall behind on the reading. For now I want to place greater emphasis on getting the reading done, including fiction reading which I think is essential to being able to read. Perhaps as I regain reading and writing skills, it will be easier to be more flexible. I imagine that over time I will naturally return to specific themes and lines of thought illuminated in previous articles.

The ease with which I am able to read is returning quickly. The return of vocabulary is fluid in a way that I didn’t expect.  Yes, I’ve spent more time with the dictionary as of late, but it’s more than that.  When I relax and start writing something in my head, I use vocabulary (correctly) with which I am uncomfortable when I stop to think.  “Wait, is that really the right word?” I ask.  Words pop into my head for which I can’t immediately produce a dictionary definition that turn out to be just the word I was looking for earlier or the day before.  Exposing my conscious mind to information appears to unlock so much more beneath the surface.

Oh the joy that comes with greater awareness of subtlety and subtext.  Just now typing the word “subtlety”,  I had doubts that my spelling was correct.   I’m typing in WordPad with no spellcheck, so no red line appears right after typing a misspelled word.  I think inserting my own question mark as opposed to noticing whether a red line appears provides an extra bit of mental stimulation.  Thinking about spelling as I’m typing encourages alertness.  I checked the spelling using  an online dictionary.  I type in WordPad, then I cut and paste into a program with spellcheck.  I don’t do this for every bit of writing, but I find it helpful when I do.

Ha, ha… just cut an pasted and realized that I had misspelled the word “misspelled.”  I only had one “s.”

My intention is to read anthropology for a year. That’s the basic goal. I’m not an anthropologist; so from time to time, I may write heresy. That’s not to say that I won’t also write things that are just plain wrong. Feel free to proselytize and/or correct. Oh, the clock hasn’t started, yet, as far as counting down that year. I’ll start the clock once I feel that I’ve gotten going properly. I’m sorting and categorizing available reading material — year published, subject, subfield, area of the world…

I’ve started reading, grazing. I’ve been experiencing a lot of mental motion sickness. The reawakening of my literacy is getting in the way of my reading. Paragraphs are once again filled with bedazzled hooks, some dangling overhead, some already underneath the skin — The Lure of the Tangent Line. I’m being yanked and I like it. Yes, I did see the episode of SpongeBob with the hooks (“Hooky“).  My medicated mind had been impervious to hooks and yanking.  I expect discipline and focus to return with practice.

I started reading an article yesterday, “Anthropologist View American Culture” (Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 1983. 12:49-78) and I came across the word “particularistic” on the first page.  Probably I had heard mention of particularism, but it wasn’t readily familiar.  I visited Wikipedia for a quick reference.  I first looked at Historical particularism, an approach in anthropology and then I read Epistemological particularism, an approach in philosophy.   As to the latter:  “Epistemological particularism is the belief that one can know something without knowing how one knows that thing.”  I start thinking about learning, memory and cognitive development.  I remember how as a little girl I could not shake the picture of my great grandfather “driving” a horse and buggy.   My mother, with firm memories of riding in a car with her grandfather, said with bemusement that it wasn’t THAT long ago.  I started thinking of how children view the past, how it’s all a fairly compact wad of once-upon-a-time.   I recently reread Huck Finn.  Huck did remark quick a bit on the concept of time, didn’t he?  Are there similarities across cultures as to how children view time?  Didn’t I come across several articles concerning culture and concepts of time?  Should I scan some of those now?  I very recently started watching episodes of “The L Word“.   In season 2, episode 11, a biracial woman reads Huck Finn to her African-American father as he lies in his hospital bed.  I recognized the passage right away.  Were the writers/producers making a statement about race, language and literature?  Did people comment on this at time?  Should I do a search?  Hmm, I don’t think anyone experiences time linearly no matter how they speak about it.  I should at least scan the titles of the articles about time, shouldn’t I?  Didn’t so-and-so say something interesting about time? The name starts with an “L,” maybe?  I almost got it.

And before I know it, there I am hook-in-lip flapping around on someone’s boat.  I go back to page 1 paragraph 2 of “Anthropologist View American Culture.”   I’m scanning the section headings now… More on this tomorrow.  Yes, set a deadline.

My brain is out at sea during a bad thunderstorm that’s unfolding in slow motion. That’s the feeling I have after ceasing brain-altering medication that I was prescribed for nearly four years. I’m being flooded with information/awareness that had been blocked from my conscious mind and there’s a strong mental motion sickness.

For example, it came to be that when I “read” a piece of writing, I could make no connections with previously read writing. Yes, there is a lot of writing out there that dose not require this ability. However, literacy is more than sounding out and understanding the dictionary definitions of words on a page, but I could do little more than just that. This loss occurred gradually. Now that I am regaining literacy, it’s as if I’ve broken a prolonged fast by eating exceedingly rich chocolate cake.

I am now plotting a course toward “normal” brain function. I find that as I read and write more, the mental motion sickness decreases. While I find that reading literature works best, I think variety of subject and type is also beneficial. My plan includes concentrated reading in anthropology in part due to my passionate interest. I also have readily available anthropology reading material.

My writing here will include my responses to various readings in anthropology along with personal musings, cultural observations, the odd interview (hopefully) and other such. I don’t necessarily feel up to this task, but I figure starting on it will be motivation for doing more and will result in doing better.

So, with course partially plotted, I press ahead. I’m Southern… I like alliteration.