Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why Anthropology?

Regular readers should know by now that I often appeal to anthropological practices in my writing, particularly involving the study of work practices and not only on this site but also in my writings for Much of this may be attributed to the amount of time I spent rubbing shoulders with workplace anthropologists when I was an IT research in Silicon Valley. However, I realized that there is another perspective that might be useful.

Several weeks ago, while I was waiting for a concert to begin, one of the managers of the ensemble I was covering came by and observed that I was reading Local Knowledge, a collection of essays by Clifford Geertz. Since she had studied anthropology, she wanted to know why I was reading his work. I replied that I had spent the better part of my time as a student with my head in an innumerable number of scores. As a result, whether I was attending a concert or listening to a recording, I could never get my head away from questions of fidelity to the score, without realizing that there was more to performance than decoding pages full of symbols that had nothing to do with the English language. That "more," of course, had to do with the ability to consider the performance of music as a work practice grounded in a culture no different, fundamentally, from the culture of sculptors in a particular African tribe or (the example to which I was closest) the culture of technicians who repair copy machines.

What appealed to me in Geertz' work was that he appreciated the extent to which one could appeal to the abstractions of symbols (such as those in music notation) as part of the study, as long as one did not overload the attention one paid to those symbols. Here is a passage from this "Art as a Cultural System" essay that particularly appealed to me:
To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted. It is not a new cryptography that we need, especially when it consists of replacing one cipher by another less intelligible, but a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them. It will have, of course, to be trained on signification, not pathology, and treat with ideas, not with symptoms.
This idea that interpretation involves more than decoding and may even involve a frame of mind oriented towards diagnosis appealed to me when I read it, and it continues to appeal to me. It seems to be that anyone who sits in the audience during a performance of music is trying to make the experience an intelligible one. If, as I writer, I realize that this is what I am doing and if I can then translate my efforts to do so into a readable text, then I may be of assistance to others faced with that same problem of finding intelligibility. If that is the case, then I feel obliged to follow Geertz' lead, putting more attention into the "culture of making music" than into either the objective artifacts of that culture (scores and recordings) or to any intellectual effort that tries to abstract the music away from how it is made, whether it involves a mathematical analysis of a symbolic representation or the far more pedestrian ideology focused on worshiping the "greatness of a hero."

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