Language and Human Nature

Posts related to my book “Language and Human Nature”

In an article which appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, (“Waiting for Goffman” – by Michael Dirda -Sept. 17, 2010), I got excited, reminiscent; wondering about Goffman… as well as about myself.

Wondering how we study the human these days, I currently find myself wandering more into socio-political arenas (given these “interesting times”), than “merely” trying to describe and understand the world. But I’ve spent so many years trying to “see and study” the human in our most…basic terms: e.g., the human body – socially, developmentally, interacting, ageing, being and seeing others, and or via ourselves. (“Body Journals,” “Foundations Project,” “Language and Human Nature.” And I think I’ve “exhausted” those subjects.

Dirda “gets off” on Goffman’s magnificent prose, but also on the depth and breadth of his observations: as Goffman tried to explore the world as “an ethnographer of small entities.” As I now refer to myself as an “anthropologist of the Ordinary” – I relate very well to the title and ideas behind the first book: “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” – a most expansive framing of the worlds in which we all wander, but… exploring who we are “behind” our public persona.

Goffman was “some kind” of Sociologist-Anthropologist who wrote beautifully, and was one of the best-ever observers of various persons interacting in varying circumstances.

And he was my “big brother”. Big brother, because we were/are heavily influenced by the same teacher-person: Ray Birdwhistell (who doesn’t show up in Dirda – but he always was the primary base for Erving’s and my thinking about… most everything. Birdwhistell who Goffman met at the U. of Toronto; me, somewhat later at SUNY Buffalo – he was our primary teacher, model, incite/insight/excite: the “best observer” I ever met. Similarly for Goffman.

Birdwhistell sent us both to U. of Chicago where we fell under the thinking of various practitioners of “Symbolic Interaction” deriving from G. H. Mead, whose ideas seem now to be “creeping” back into a field which has practically been overtaken by Sociobiology and/or by Neuropsychology and other psychologies which don’t pay much attention to the interactional-social facts of our very being.

Dirda’s celebratory piece is excited by Goffman, and wonders why he has mostly “disappeared” from public view after a good, long run in Sociology, and currently in some parts of Comparative Literature.

Well: the history of ideas and academic power overtook Birdwhistell, and then myself. I’ve been trying to revive and extend Goffman and Birdwhistell’s ideas> (Plus, Birdwhistell was the best observer I’ve ever met – in many circumstances… all of human… life.)

While Goffman “enjoyed” quite great success, his teachers and little brother got “wiped out” in what I call the Chomskyan “revolution” in ideas – where the study of the human got displaced (still is) by the notion that the human being is centrally a mind/thinker, not a body in such complex interactions.

Goffman who was finally a “university professor” at Penn, was able to “rescue” Birdwhistell and got him a position there after he was “let-go” from his study of human-interaction at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute as support for these studies just “went away” and our careers much diluted.

There are seekers after knowledge who probe the material of our being, to know knowing. Inside the cranium, way behind the fronts of eyes seeing out, there is the thing we call the brain. The brain, the modern elect to be the center of our being that it tells us what is and what we do; and we do not understand how it works.

A finite thing, a contained tissue which lends itself, somehow, to knowing the infinitude, the finite become the imagination. The brain, the mind, a puzzle to boggle the imagination by which we know to ask. The focus on the brain drives itself backward, regressively into the self-caused cause which is called God the creator in other thought arenas.

Here, the steerer, the tiny man or woman within, the bottom line, informs us no more than if we knew nothing. The answer, for there must be an answer, must lie within; but where, but how? Not knowledge enough, yet; but wait. Somewhere, in there, the answer. Not anywhere else. I am certain. But…my life grows short, and I must know knowing ere I depart. To search, to search, where can I go that I can know…knowing?

The material, the brain, yet defines my understanding. I search for the seat of being elsewhere and find it is the last place I look: the dreams of night, that is where; deeply in the knowing beneath the consciousness of being…awake. I drive myself to the seat of being which precedes the emergence of being human and of being who I am.

“What scientists do when a paradigm fails is, guess what, they carry on as if nothing happened.”

After watching this TED video of Elaine Morgan, updating us about the latest evolutionary research supporting the hypothesis that we evolved from primate ancestors who dwelt in watery habitats and the connection between nakedness and water in mamals, I thought I’d share my unedited essay on Elaine’s other examined ideas about m/other-child interaction from her book “The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution From a New Perspective“. Many paradigms need updating these days!

So, first the TED video updating on how we evolved, followed by my essay updating how we become somebody (interested folks might also like to see my (shorter) post about this.)


Seeing Somebody There


The broader context of this essay explores the fact that we humans are socially interactive creatures: “bodies-in-interaction.” Our individuality, the development of the self and/or the I, is an “emergent” aspect of the human condition.

Fact is italicized since the history and current thinking about the human and how we are, think, know…has managed to omit this fact. Why so, and what differences it makes in how we think about the human, the world…are at the heart of this discussion.

The human has been characterized as each (physical) individual, essentially separate or independent of others – at least early on in life. The individual has been characterized in terms of knowledge or mind: the individual is taken to be an embodied mind. The mind – how we know or have knowledge – is the factor of our being which is raised to the status of definition of our being.

In my experience, thought, and observations, this is not an accurate characterization of the human. Though it has been the completely dominant idea of the human – particularly in Western thinking – it leads us away from the experience and truth of our being – tends to focus on certain of our (presumed) abilities as definitional – and mis- or under-estimates many others. The facts of our faces being central to our being, for example, has been hardly studied or much considered in thinking about what is the human.

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I’ll be going to NYC this weekend for a conference on “General Semantics” – seems there’s a growing interest in Media Ecology, my former teachers who contributed to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman – and I’ll be giving a talk exploring my interests and my teachers in the context of a review of Edward T. Hall (buddy of G.L.

Trager – my teacher). Meeting with Dan Latorre (especially), a former student of mine continuing in extended conversations about the media, especially.

“The 57th Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture & Dinner and 3-Day International Istitute for General Semantics Conference”
Conference Schedule (PDF)

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Who are cops…the police? Mostly guys, mostly white. In the past few decades a few women, more and more “ethnic” persons: some African-American, in Minneapolis-St.

Paul they reflect the recent immigrations…somewhat…as far as I know. Not too many Hmong persons, a few Latinos from various countries…

Who are we…in thinking about the police – wondering how they think about us, and what they’re “up to?” How many of us would like to be cops? Do police “like” being cops, or filled to various levels of…fear, import, wondering about each next person, in each approaching moment?

How do they get to be cops? I mean what’s inside their heads, their thinking, that we might get to understand in their terms – more than in our reactive minds?

Also important – maybe very important is the fact that they dress in “uniforms.” Uniforms seem to take individual identity and help make them all into police – cops. (Where has their “individuality” gone?)

More signs: their cars, bright flashing lights, rear seats which can be made very separate from the front ones; painted black and white (in lots of places). Quite obvious. (Except that we might forget to notice them when we’re driving a bit too fast: over the speed limit. And they can make really loud siren noises which instill us with fear and the immediate reaction to stop, and pull over.)

All this to say that the police have quite a “presence” in the world: in many/most senses they are all “alike.” Uniform…has several meanings and even more connotations. (The differences between police and the military? – has gotten a bit complicated and confusing especially in these moments driven by war, terror, fear… (Observing the RNC meeting in St. Paul last fall: the police “looked” remarkably like military – faces obscured, wearing odd/different uniforms, carrying threatening looks and clubs. Whatever it takes to “keep the peace” said the mayors!)

Sargeant Crowley and that “Uppity Professor” (from Harvard no less), “Skip” Gates. What were the exact circumstances? Never totally clear: perhaps so “obvious” to many of us, that the moment-to-moment “facts” don’t seem very important to the situation.

A white cop (likely with some ethnic background which might still be “important” – was very important a couple of generations ago – Irish Catholic? Boston, a long history of Irish Catholics bathing in money and power. But we should remember the movie, “Gangs of New York” pitching the Irish immigrants against the (then) white Protestant majority to taste those senses of their history. Tough (mostly) guys? Ethnics, culture: what sorts of culture do the police have? “White ethnicity: gone entirely or some residuals?

And an African American, in many ways “the African-American Professor” in these times when being “Black” is taking on some “new” meanings, especially as Barack Obama is our President. And Harvard: In “spite” of being at Harvard, Gates is probably the most important historian/critic of what is African-American. Read the rest of this entry »

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(Part 1 on my teachers. Part 2 touches on this line of thought, part of how it stalled, and impact on society. Part 3 is on “languaging”. Part 4 summarizes some lessons learned from my teachers.)

Who am I? A deep and developing question. But I did have several teachers who helped me to formulate my thinking and directions.

Above all, Ray Birdwhistell – the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the human body-in-interaction. He was an Anthropologist who was the best observer of people I’ve ever met – observer in the sense of seeing people in careful and detailed senses. He was trained as a “classical” dancer, and seemed to see all others as performers in life’s dances. And he didn’t only concentrate on each individual. He also/always noted how they interacted: in groups, in life’s varieties of social contexts from infants to older, the ordinary and the exceptional in every sense; richer and poorer, healthy and injured and “odd” and…; ethnic, linguistic. His ways into the world were always expanding. Life is social, interactive: the individual…?

My Teachers - My Teachers - Ray Birdwhistell, George Trager, Henry L. Smith Jr., Norman McQuown, ...

My Teachers (click image to enlarge)

Ray was a student of the Chicago School of Symbolic Interaction – heirs of the American Pragmatist, George Herbert Mead, and the anthropologists who wandered the entire world. His work wandered from American Indians to the average family dynamics, to the sick – physically and, particularly, mentally. And he directed me to the U. of Chicago, Anthropology, where I continued my studies with linguist Norman McQuown – under whose tutelage I (and family: J, and infant daughter Amy) studied a Mayan Language (Tzotzil) and lived in Chiapas, Mexico for two years deeply immersed in both Indian and Ladino (their term) cultures during this time.

Ray was also a student in the line of thought and active fieldwork (life is fieldwork!) of Franz Boas: Margaret Mead (especially), Gregory Bateson, influenced his thought. Read the rest of this entry »

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It begins on the first day of teaching, now entering my thoughts as the new school year approaches…so rapidly. The course to come will be splendid, the best ever: I feel so “sharp,” so ready to espouse/spout the truth to come!

I note all the students sitting there, not merely at ease, or with various sorts of questioning appearances. Rather they are mostly staring at me, “their” teacher; rather staring “through me” looking to see…what, who? Am I, can I ever be, who they want somehow to penetrate; to be…?

In those instants, beyond the talk which I talk of the course to come, I wonder who they are, who they see in me. And who am I, runs so rapidly in my being, that I find it difficult – so difficult to grasp my own “presence” – and remain the teacher I would be, even as I am anthropologist to them and to my own being.

Writing in response to Christopher Kelty’s post on Savage Minds about Experimental Philosophy (x-phi), I am pleased, perplexed, pensive… I have lived (still do!) the life of the Anthropologist who would be doing philosophy, and imagine that we might one day find each other. Soon?! Maybe.

Trained principally, to study language and behavior and sociality/culture, I begin by including “myself” in the study of anyone’s language, culture, thought…Who am I, where am I, how did I get here, how to be the “measurer” of all things?

As a self-proclaimed “Anthropologist of the Ordinary,” I understand the temptations to study the “exotic,” but note that the ordinary human is much more exotic than we have noted. The human body which exists in the world with others’ bodies (the Pragmatism of G.H. Mead inserts itself into this approach) is a brilliant and ongoing piece of work, that we seem to want to underestimate as some derivative of the idea of mind.
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