It should come as little surprise to many of you that, as a die-hard word-nerd, linguistic anthropology should be an area of significant interest to me. The particulars of language can carry powerful symbolic (or, for you fellow pointy-headed social scientists, “semiotic”) import. Language can be sexy; we talk of “pregnant” pauses or “copulative” verbs. From the time humanity began to orally communicate as well as set ink to paper, our identities and perspectives have been shaped in part by our use of language (more will be blogged on that part at a later date. Also, yes; I know I just split an infinitive. More on that at a still later date).
I understand if many of you find a post about language dryer than a Sauna in Tuscan. If Tuscan were relocated to the Sahara. Click on the link, then, if you dare.
Our arsenal of textual tools includes metaphor and metonym, the ability to compare one concept to another. James Fernandez, author of “The Mission of Metaphor in Expressive Culture,” opines that they bring order out of an inchoate mass. A vaguely defined subject is compared to an already understood idea, and some sort of identity is established. Claude Levi-Strauss, commonly viewed as the founder of American Anthropology, theorized that humans made sense of themselves and their culture by comparing themselves (or, more appropriately, ourselves) to animals. Totemism allowed societies to preserve a primordial affiliation with their environment will still allowing these societies to separate themselves as discrete entities within — and, ultimately, apart from — the natural world. This is reflected in totemic myths such as the Pomo tale of The Girl Who Married Rattlesnake. The myth is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. However, in the end, the girl is forced to leave her family for good due to her choice of spouse (her mother weeps over her because “she is so changed”). The tale conveys a class of totemic myth with the moral, in Fernandez’s words, being “we used to marry animals but not anymore.”
Meanwhile, Christianity is replete with metaphors. Bread and wine become the body and blood of the savior. Sinners become their stained soul. The entirety of christendom is solidified, out of the chaos, into the body of Christ.
I could obviously say more, and resurrect further buzzwords (paradigmatic and syntagmatic, for example). Those belong to the realm of dry academia, and require a full post of their own. What say you regarding metaphor? Does this resonate? Does this compel you to call bullshit on me? Do you not understand what the hell I’m talking about?