My Teachers, Part 3

(Further notes after my first “My Teachers” post.)

It was at Buffalo where I began to study with George Trager, Ray Birdwhistell, and Henry Lee Smith. They arrived there in the fall of 1956: I was one of their first two students. As Trager was the essential co-author of “The Silent Language,” I include E.T. Hall’s work and thinking in my education (and current re-reading).

I continue to be their student, over 50 years later.

Ray Birdwhistell is probably the one whose ideas and practices continue to shape me most. He was the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the Body-in-Interaction. He was a trained dancer, the best observer I have ever met: observer of the very wide contexts in which humans…are. He also tried to describe in symbols what he was seeing: arms, faces, always in-interaction. A challenging task. The body…and the mind – who and how we are.)

Teachings: how to see people (always including oneself…seeing, being, and body movements); how to note that “presence” of anyone entails (from his other student, Erving Goffman: “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”) the facts that we appear as we do in the company and contexts of others…and ourselves. There is much more to study: behind the scenes, in private alone and with others…Think about other bodies (other species) interacting socially; the power(s) in any/every relationship. And the study of context, in always broadening senses: how we know “when” we are, just to begin. (I wrote about this in the “Foundations Project.”) Different cultures (and subcultures).

I inhale and swallow deeply as I think about all the directions in which his continuing questions and observations continue to excite and inspire me.

Last (for now), it was his teaching – as dialogue – which I continue to explore as practice, in writing, being and thinking.

George Trager was the anthropologist-linguist who most affected my ongoing study of “languaging.” I use this term because it is – in theory directed always toward practice – it is the framing which urges one to attend to sound in all its human contexts. It began with the study of my Buffalo-talk. My dialect – which I considered to be the most “proper” English – made him giggle (still, in my head I see him) as I was taught to begin to study my own being and practice. Buffalo, all of English (today and in history) as part of the languages of the world.

The structure of language – but most broadly: more than syntax, sounds, phonetics and phonemics as the methods for entering the “minds” of speakers of all languages. The politics of all this, and how different people(s) and cultures consider themselves, their languages, and others. Paralanguage: the fact (most pursued by Trager), that the sound structure of language is hugely important in our speech and understanding. I spent a summer with him (and families) in Taos, N.M., studying the paralanguage of the Taos language, and have carried this into my own study of speech, communication, and mutual understanding. Mouths, tongues, movement of the lips, larynx, where we “place” our tongues, breathing, saliva.

You “gotta” go out, look and listen. Observation, experience…the bases of our knowledge!

Henry Smith (“Haxie”) was less the theorist, more the student of how the world actually is: an expert in American dialects – Trager’s continuous confidante – an amazingly articulate person. Pay attention…

It was the three of them who took me into the directions of culture, the silent languages. All of them resonate in my being and thinking, now some 50+ years later, still seeing and hearing (and watching them in classes, and the many informal interactions as I continue(d)to study, invoking them in my own…as my own.

They carried with them – in my memories and thinking certainly, E.T. Hall, Gregory Bateson, and Margaret Mead, and others in the experiences of living and studying in other cultures…eventually to come back “home” – seeing and studying “the ordinary” in so many of its complexities. Why I like to call myself: an “Anthropologist of the Ordinary.”