Lecture 7, Feb. 24 Symbolic Communication and Performance
1. Review over the course so far: -first two lectures dealt with introducing the anthropological
perspective: there is a difference between trying to study “other cultures scientifically” and
engaging with the culturally Other, both in others and in oneself. This doesn’t mean that
understanding another culture applying its own parameters is a meaningless, or even a bad thing.
But it means that doing so, interpreting the Other is always, at least implicitly, a way of
understanding and transforming oneself. This means to regard anthropology as more and other
than a science built after the model of the natural sciences.
-the next two lectures dealt with some of the historical circumstances in which anthropology
emerged as an academic discipline (that is a subject taught at universities, which is different
from anthropology as a general intellectual pursuit; as such a pursuit, an interest in the lives of
other peoples, anthropology can probably be regarded as old as society and culture itself). Some
of the most important early anthropologists were introduced as “founding fathers” of the
discipline. These lectures concentrated on traditional anthropology in the sense of the discipline
as it is taught by professors and learned by students (that is passed on as a “tradition”, literally
“what is passed on”, from Latin tradere, to pass on)
-the next two lectures continued to be concerned with the history of anthropology, but shifted the
focus to what anthropologists do in practice, i.e. fieldwork using the method of participant
observation, interpreting the material gathered in this way, and writing an ethnographic account
based on these interpretations. It was said that these methods and practices are still relevant today
and define modern (= “traditional”) anthropology. But I have also pointed out that there are
problems and contradictions inherent in these defining practices. The conflict between
fieldwork as scientific method and personal experience was exemplified in the work of
Bronislaw Malinowski. The problem of ethnography as “fiction”, as something that is inevitably
“made” by the anthropologist who must interpret the other reality and thereby makes it not-other,
but his or her own, has been addressed through the work of Clifford Geertz.
The insight that ethnography is fictional led to the so-called crisis of representation in
anthropology and the self-reflective turn, in which anthropologists tried to come to terms with
how they produced the kind of knowledge they claimed. This movement has also been called
post-modern anthropology, to distinguish it from anthropology as a project of modernity, with
the objective to understand culturally others “objectively”. In postmodernity, the emphasis is not
1 placed on what is known anymore, but on how one knows, on the conditions of the production of
knowledge. The truth value of a certain knowledge is not a primary consideration anymore, and
postmodernity thus has affinity to radical relativism.
2. Crapanzano “Tuhami”
See Lecture 6
3. Communication as a Paradigm
-the following two lectures will concentrate on providing you with the theoretical and
intellectual means to adopt an anthropological perspective towards your own culture.
-lecture 9 will demonstrate this perspective through the analysis of actual ethnographic material,
a “dating guide” which is not so different from a myth recorded on a tropical island in the Pacific
or at some other exotic place
-the three lectures after that aim at deepening your understanding of the anthropological
perspective through concrete applications on a variety of anthropological themes: mental
illness, body and gender, ritual and magic.
-what allows you to adopt the anthropological perspective is the paradigm of communication.
-communication has been an ongoing theme in the course: We have learned from Mauss that
social life can be conceptualized in terms of exchange relations and that the things that are
exchanged in the form of gifts and counter-gifts are not just material objects but that they stand
for other things than themselves. Something that stands for something other than itself, however,
is the age-old definition of a sign. The exchanged things are thus signs and their exchange is an
exchange of signs, that is: communication. We have seen this exemplified in the Kula-trade of
the Trobriand Islands where on the surface-level of social action arm-shells are exchanged
against necklaces, but where these trading objects stand for, “mean” a host of other things: social
relations, prestige, sea-travel, magic, feasts, etc.
We have then seen how Levi-Strauss has made communication the central idea for his project of
structuralism. Everything - women, goods and services, and messages (signs in the stricter sense
of the term)- Levi-Strauss said, can be thought of as exchanges within a set of relationships, as
communication in this sense. Structuralism and the writings of Levi-Strauss are difficult and
abstract, but a good way to approach him is from the perspective of communication and sign-
exchange. Every kind of social phenomenon, Levi-Strauss asserts can be conceptualized in
2 analogy to a language.Alanguage is a system of signs and of rules regarding their use which is
(seemingly) independent from whatever those who use it do with it. It has an abstract reality as a
set of formal relations (like the ones that we have talked about which pertain between the sounds
of language, and which define the phonems, or the phonological system of the language).
“Culture” then can be described as a system of relations analogous to the relations we find in the
linguistic system. What is important is that communication is again the guiding idea here; to
simplify matters a little for the sake of comprehension we could say that what Levi-Strauss has in
mind is something like a grammar of culture. But a grammar describes the abstract rules of
language use; it is not concerned with what and how people actually speak.
This, however, is of central importance to anthropology as ethnographic description of the reality
of other cultures.
The idea of culture as communication became more concrete and empirical in the work of
Clifford Geertz, who defined culture as webs of meaning spun by man himself. This adds an
active aspect to the abstract conception of culture as system of rules. It means to look at culture
not from the perspective of the analyst who looks for formal relationships, i.e. structures in what
people do and say, but from the perspective of a cultural agent, that is somebody who lives, acts,
and experiences their culture as reality. From the perspective of the agent or producer, culture
presents itself not as a set of abstract relations and rules, but as a system of meanings the actor
has at her or his disposal to express what they want to say and to interpret what others express.
So there is a shift from formal analysis to active participation, which is correlated with the stress
on participant observation so characteristic for ethnographic fieldwork. The ethnographer’s task
is to enter the particular universe of meaning which constitutes the reality of the other culture to
the best of her abilities and to interpret concrete communicative acts in reference to the context
of this universe.
Geertz calls his understanding of culture semiotic, the adjective to semiotics, the science, study
or “doctrine” of signs.And indeed, semiotics is the discipline that thinks of reality in the widest
sense as communication through signs. The crucial point here is that a semiotic perspective
holds that there is no reality behind the one that human beings communicate about. Or more
precisely, the signs they use to represent the world to each other and to assure themselves
mutually of reality are the reality. Webs of meaning are self-spun and man entangles himself in
3 these webs because they are the only thing that prevents him from falling into meaningless
The British anthropologist Edmund Leach explains the semiotic or communicative character of
human existence in the following manner. He distinguishes between three aspects of human
1. natural biological activities of the human body – breathing, heartbeat, metabolic processes,
2. technical actions, which serve to alter the physical state of the world out there – digging a hole
in the ground, boiling an egg;
3. expressive actions, which either simply say something about the state of the world as it is, or
else purport to alter it by metaphysical means.
Only the last aspect is ordinarily regarded as communicative action, involving the exchange of
signs. Leach, however, insists that technical action and biological activities also have expressive
or signifying character:
“My three aspects of behavior are never completely separable. Even the act of breathing is
‘expressive’– it ‘says’that I am still alive. Even the simplest technical action has both biological
and expressive implication. If I make myself a cup of coffee it not only alters the state of the
world out-there, it also stimulates my internal metabolic processes, and it ‘says’something. The
way I prepare my coffee and the instruments I use in the process give information about my
cultural background.” (Leach 1976. Culture and Communication: 9)
We never leave the level of signs and sign-exchange. Our bodily processes are signs of our
vitality and we have developed a science and practices which are concerned with the
interpretations of these signs (or more precisely: symptoms, which is a type of sign): medicine.
Pain on the one hand is the meaningless experience par excellence: it throws me back onto
myself, making me unable to act in the world or to communicate with others. But on the other
hand it is also a sign that something is wrong with me and it compels me to become active to find
the cause of the pain, go to the doctor, the chiropractor or the shaman.
Whatever I do in the world, even sitting in front of the computer, writing or chatting,
necessarily involves my body and the sign-processes of bodily functioning. If I perform an act of
manual work, for example, cutting down a tree with an axe, this not only influences my heartbeat
and blood pressure, leading to perspiration, all of which are signs for my exertion; my technical
4 action can also be and is inevitably interpreted by others from a variety of possible standpoints.
They could see it as physical exercise (why doesn’t he take a motor saw?), poverty (he can’t
afford one; he doesn’t have central heating in his house), closeness to nature (he chops his own
firewood), alienation from nature (is this a rare species of tree?), skills (sure he wants to build
something from the wood), etc. etc. Any kind of action is inevitably caught in the webs of
meaning Clifford Geertz talks about.And all of these interpretations obviously include a cultural
aspect, like for example the existence of a motor-saw as a tool that is available and affordable to
If we consider the consumption of food as another example for the sign-character of all human
behavior we can see how bodily, technical and expressive aspects are interlaced with each other.
“Consumption” here not only refers to the act of actually consuming food, that is eating it. It
also includes the technical actions of procuring food, that is of going shopping. Driving to the
supermarket, picking produce in the fruit and vegetable section, ordering meat in the Deli-
section, selecting bread from the in-store bakery, going to the cash, paying with one’s credit card
and many other actions certainly are physical process taking place in the objective world and
altering it, whoever minimally.At the same time, they are expressive actions and say something
about the culture we live in, about its technological standard (“driving”, “credit card”), its
economy and divisions of labor (“supermarket”), its ideas about nutrition (“produce”, “meat”,
“bread” as different food groups), etc.
When we consider the layout of a typical supermarket in closer detail (at least the kind where the
bourgeoisie to which professors belong tend to shop) the semiotic web tightens further: the
produce section is regularly placed near the entrance and is designed so as to remind a farmer’s
market with different stalls and heaps of fruits and vegetables. The Deli is reminiscent of a
butcher’s shop with employees performing some of the acts butchers used to do, the bakery
section of a traditional bakery etc. Every product, through its placement and presentation refers
to something else, it stands for something else; even in something as profane and everyday as a
shopping in the supermarket we are surrounded by, entangled in signs.
This entanglement becomes even more obvious when we look at what comes before our actual
acts of consumption and often motivates these acts: advertisement. In the media we are literally
bombarded by signs, knit together to condensed messages, “adds”, “commercials”, “spots”.
Talking about food we see how the relatively straightforward process of keeping one’s body alive
5 and able to carry out the tasks necessary for survival becomes hilariously complicated. Food is
connected with themes like love, history, happiness, even national identity (“proudly
Canadian”); it is loaded with ideas ordered in a narrative sequence, that is: an ideology.
Consuming, buying, preparing and eating food is transformed from a physiologically grounded
activity into a fulfillment of desire and pursuit of transcendental goals like happiness and self-
And now we have come full circle: Because food is something we literally “put into ourselves”
and because it is not just a thing but an ideological sign, the body itself becomes a complex sign
for the cultural world we live in. “Obesity”, “Anorexia”, “Bulimia”, they are not just diseases of
the body, they are also cultural signs.And to say this is first and foremost stating a simple fact
which comes before the cultural criticism that talks about a “crisis of the West” or “negative
effects of capitalism” or similar tropes. It is a way of understanding the body and its expressions
and it’s based on a semiotic perspective which approaches human phenomena as processes of
communication through signs.
4. Cultural Reality as self-produced: Performance
Human beings always have a system of meanings at their disposal (culture as constituted); we all
are born into a culture whose rules we are taught by our parents and other adults, who we
encounter in our intimate social relations, but also in institutions like schools, sport clubs,
community centers, universities, etc. The socialization into culture begins very early, basically
with the first breath we take: there is a difference whether this first breath takes place in a
hospital, for example, or in the family home (we will hear later in the course about how the birth
practices and concepts of human reproduction are culturally relative, see the reading by Emily
Martin, Lecture 11).And culture is always already there in its entirety: consider for example the
custom to play the national anthem every morning in school. In this way already Kindergarteners
learn that the abstract notion called “Canada” is embodied in a musical tune; they memorize the
lyrics and learn how to respond by a certain behavior to hearing it (“standing up”, “standing
still”). They also learn that behaving in this manner expresses an attitude called “respect” and
they learn to distinguish this attitude from others which are called “politeness”, “self-control”,
“patience”, etc. etc. In this manner, children are made acquainted with their culture and learn to
perceive it as quasi-natural and unquestioningly real. This familiarity is achieved by a
6 correspondence between bodily gestures and behaviors and cultural values and meanings. In this
way, humans learn as cultural beings to move within the webs of meanings surrounding them.
But what about Geertz’s additional qualification of these webs being self-spun? Who spins the
web of culture and when?
As I said from the ontogenetic standpoint (ontogenetic: regarding the development of the
individual; phylogenetic: regarding the development of the species), culture always seems to be
already there. We know on the other hand that change occurs all the time; that the world I grew
up in is not the same as the world my children grow up in, and that my parents’world was an
altogether different world. So who is responsible for cultural change? One is tempted to assume a
some sort of master-mind, or a group of people who direct the cultural process in certain
directions according to their interests and objectives. These people are variously imagined as
politicians, economists, artists, etc. and it is suggested that they “know what they are doing”,
meaning that they are in conscious control of the changes they are causing by their actions.
Approaching the problem from the perspective of communication, this notion must be seen as
simplifying. Taking place between a minimum of two exchange partners