Metaphysical Community

[ Latin American Studies ]

Metaphysical Community

The Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect

By Greg Urban

A South American tribe's culture is the starting point for this exploration of the uneasy tension that binds experience and understanding, phenomena and noumena.



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6 x 9 | 304 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-78529-8

Starting with the post-structuralist idea that truth systems are lodged in discourse, and that discourse varies from society to society, Greg Urban seeks to discover the nature and extent of that variation. His journey to an Amerindian society in which dreams are more prominent than everyday aspects of the sensible world leads him to radically reformulate one of the main problematics of Western thought: the relationship between our sensations of the world and the understandings we form of them.

Metaphysical Community proposes that this dichotomy comes from the interplay between two sides of discourse-its intelligible side as a carrier of meanings, and its sensible side as thing-in-the-world that must be replicated. This insight leads to the heart of the book-the exploration of the uneasy tension that binds experience and understanding, phenomena and noumena.

Urban challenges basic assumptions that underlie social and cultural anthropology and much of the social sciences and humanities. His provocative insights will be of interest to all those concerned with anthropology, cultural studies, literary criticism, the sociology and politics of culture, and philosophy.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. A Tapir's Heart
  • 2. We the Living
  • 3. The Hole in the Sky
  • 4. A Lock of Hair in a Ball of Wax
  • 5. The Jaguar's Spots
  • 6. This Is Your Making
  • 7. Rocks That Talk
  • 8. Between Myth and Dream
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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This is a study of one small corner of our planet: an Amerindian community in the interior of Brazil. What possible significance can it hold for the planet as a whole? What fight can it shed on the large intellectual issues of modern times? The answer is this: If truth is carried in discourse, and if discourse is complexly embedded in the human populations in which it circulates, then to study the nature of truth and knowledge, we need to study the ways in which discourse—and hence truth—varies from one part of our globe to the next.

This is why anthropology has become so central to philosophical and more broadly intellectual concerns in the late twentieth century. Long before it became fashionable to do so, anthropologists immersed themselves in the truth systems of populations remote from their own. Initially, this did not impel them to question their own truth discourses, as they were able to rank knowledge systems evolutionarily, placing their own at the pinnacle. But there was always a measure of self-doubt involved in this, a nervous assertion of superiority, and the nervousness was only exacerbated by the rise of intensive field research—prolonged immersion in communities that were the most different from their own—such as Bronislaw Malinowski described in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific, often heralded as the first modern ethnography.

The nervousness took articulate shape in the concept of cultural relativism, so eloquently espoused in recent times by Clifford Geertz (1984), notably in his "Anti Anti-relativism." The key dictum is this: You should endeavor to understand an element of culture—a belief, for example—in the context in which it occurs. You look for its motivation in its relationship to the other beliefs and practices surrounding it. However, it is one thing to contemplate relativism at a distance, quite another to experience truth discourses up close, when something you initially described to yourself as a quaint "myth" suddenly takes on—at a gut level—a profound meaning in your own life. You question the absolute certainty of your old knowledge, just as you catch a glimpse of the meaningfulness of your new "knowledge."

Anthropology, with its self-doubt grounded in personal research experience, might never have assumed broader significance had it not evolved alongside the internally generated self-doubt of twentieth-century philosophy. Kantian foundations—which figure into the terminology of this book—began to crumble with the very attempts made to secure them. The rise of logical empiricism promised a way of anchoring not only mathematics but also all of truth itself. But the questions it opened up, about the relationship between statements and the external world, proved more refractory than the initial claims of Frege and Russell led everyone to assume. Efforts in analytical philosophy continue to this day—Saul Kripke's "possible world" approach comes to mind—the goal being to ground truth in a reflexive formal apparatus, or, minimally, to explore the limitations of such a grounding.

Another line of thought opened up with Wittgenstein, whose own self-doubt about logical foundations led him to examine ordinary language usage. Wittgenstein turned away from meanings and toward speaking habits, though he did not investigate those habits ethnographically. Just how do people use words? How does that use seem to result in problems of meaning? This line of thinking was picked up by John Austin, who observed that people do much more with words than merely talk about the world. His distinction between "constativity" (talking about the world) and "performativity" (doing something in the world) might lead you to wonder in what measure truth in discourse is parasitic upon doing things with discourse. In what measure are claims of truth ways of accomplishing practical, rather than purely theoretical, ends?

This was probably not the historical trajectory that led to poststructuralism and deconstructionism. The latter seem more obviously to have grown out of linguistic and anthropological insights—the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular. But both might have grown out of the questions raised and unanswered by logical empiricism, and, in any case, both reflect the same kind of doubt about the fit between discursive truths and the world.

You can readily appreciate the ontological priority that Foucault gave to power, with truth at power's behest. If performativity is the matrix of constativity, and if, further (though this be a big "if"), overtly constative statements are disguised as performative ones, then truth seems to be a function of social relations. Furthermore, if statements cannot be directly linked to the world in an unproblematic fashion, then it appears (as it did to Derrida) that all is interpretation. And if all is interpretation, then we are in the realm of play, a decidedly postmodern conceit. The play of signifiers renders nugatory any scientific ethnographic pursuit.

This is the starting point for the present book. In agreement with the deconstructionists, this book denies any direct connection between statements and the world. However, the absence of direct connection does not imply no connection at all, as if discourse and truth systems were cut loose, free-floating. The disproof of the detached character of discourse, and hence truth, is to be found in the notion of circulation, which is the basis of all culture, and which grounds the possibility of locally shared frameworks of interpretation.

How is circulation possible? It is only possible if discourse is simultaneously two things, not just one. Discourse is about the world (it is the bearer of truth, statements, meanings), but discourse is also in the world. It has a thing-like quality, and it is that quality that makes circulation (and hence culture) possible. Discourse is an object of the senses as well as of the intellect. However, its status as simultaneously in and about the world does not mean that the connection between the two is straightforward or unproblematic. Token-reflexive paradoxes—for example, "this sentence is false"—had long ago warned us of this fact.

Rather than closing off the possibilities of a scientific ethnography, however, the problematic character of relationships between statements and the world only makes it more urgent. Indeed, it is for this reason that, among the human sciences, anthropology today looms so large. What can we learn about the relationships between truth systems and the world through ethnographic study? What does the distanced, truth-laden, interpretive side of discourse have to do with its up-close, sensible, practical side? For not just any truth systems circulate. The meaningful side of discourse is not perfectly free-floating with respect to the experienceable world. To be carried along in the processes of discourse replication, statements must have (or so this book contends) something to do with the world. But what? That is a mystery that ethnography in general, and this ethnography in particular, seeks to solve.

Perhaps it would not be amiss to suggest one way of reading this book, since you might otherwise only conceptualize it in terms of classical anthropological categories such as autodesignation, space, kinship, communal organization, ritual. Let me propose that it is also possible to read this book in terms of the problematic of knowledge. You will, no doubt, appreciate that the tripartite structure of Chapter 1 (text explication, fieldwork description, theoretical formulation) models the theme of intelligibility and sensibility and their interrelations, which I see as central to the issue of public circulation. You might not so readily appreciate, however, that Chapter 2—concerned with autodesignation—is also about the classical problem of logical empiricism—proper names and their connection to the world. Not only does the chapter move from proper names to pronouns, but it tries to break apart the linkage problem by exploring the issue of circulation.

Chapter 3 takes up more centrally the issue of the attachment (or detachment) of circulating discourse to sensible space, showing that narratives that circulate most readily in the community under consideration are not ones whose immediate referents are present to the senses. Perhaps it is the very distance they maintain with respect to the senses that facilitates their circulation. Chapters 4 and 5 address more obviously Foucaultian issues—how social relations form the matrix for social circulation, but are themselves simultaneously the products of that circulation—both as the referential objects of terms (such as kinship or moiety terms) and as the precipitates of circulation, the fit being far from perfect. Here is the problematic of discourse and power/social relations.

Chapter 6 plunges into the sensuous interface of ritual, where discourse is itself most obviously a palpable thing, publicly accessible to the senses simultaneously as it circulates in a sensible ambience. This sets the stage for considering the broader problematic of interconversion between sensibility and reference, which forms the theme of the final two chapters. You can read them (and I encourage you to do so) as an attempt to deal with the old problem of reference—originally understood as the relationship between statements and the world, or even between individual terms (such as proper names and pronouns) and the world, conceptualized as a straightforward linkage problem. Here the problem is refigured more complexly in terms of the interconversions undergone by discourse as it publicly circulates, migrating from the pole of representation to that of thing, with the representation also sometimes projected into the world of things through enactments, an echo of the old constative-as-disguised-performative problem.

A note of apology to my colleagues: There are far fewer citations and discussions of contemporaneous works in this text than the subject matter seems, to our specialists' eyes, to merit. However, I have attempted to keep the text as uncluttered, and hence readable, as possible, believing that our work is relevant to a broader audience. There are resonances between our concerns and those of scholars not just in the humanities or social sciences more generally, but even in the biological and physical sciences. The processes of discourse circulation and replication are nothing if not mysterious, as inscrutable as the orbits of planets or the reproduction of life; indeed, they may be among the last and greatest mysteries of our time. It behooves us to render our investigations of them more broadly accessible.

January 21, 1995

He was working in his garden,
and had picked up a large rock,
to roll down the hill,
to get it out of the way.
The rock spoke up,
saying that he shouldn't remove him from his bed,
why was he tearing apart his house?
When the rock first spoke, it looked like the same rock,
but then it appeared just like a person.
—Wãñ&etilde;kï (August 22, 1975)

Poor empiricism! You are under attack and perhaps even on the wane within some neighborhoods of our intellectual community. In casual speech you are used, in parts of the humanities and social sciences, as a mark of derision—a "rank empiricist." The foundations of your house, once so regally splendid, have steadily eroded in the late twentieth century, the cracks and fissures and crumbling mortar becoming apparent upon inspection through the lens of cultural meanings. Why is this so? In the first place, people find that they cannot derive meanings from experience in any simple way. There seems to be no obvious one-to-one mapping. And, in the second place, the meanings attributed to experiences vary from one culture to the next. What are we to make of this, if not your unsustainability, your decrepitude?

Anti-empiricism has reached such a feverish pitch in some quarters that ethnography itself is open to question. Originally an endeavor to investigate the nonempirical or variable foundations of meaning in culture—one thinks here of Boas's observations about the color of sea water and of his formulation of "the seeing eye as organ of tradition," or of Durkheim's argument that social classifications formed the basis for the Aristotelian categories of knowledge—ethnography has now become suspect for its own empirical pretentions. Do the meanings ethnographers infer from their field experiences derive from the object of those experiences, that is, from another culture? Or are they superimposed from the ethnographer's own culture? Is the Other a construct of our cultural imagination, having little or nothing to do with the people who are Othered? Or does the Other have some substance?

One despairs here at the recognition of irreconcilable dualisms. Either experience is determinate of knowledge or it is neutral, its significance a result of cultural superimpositions. But between these two positions lies a third, which has to do with the empirical foundations of cultural meaning, not in extracultural experiences but in experiences of the very sign vehicles by which cultural meanings are circulated and shared; that is, by which they become properly cultural in the first place. And the most important of those vehicles is discourse.

The textual artifact in Plate 1 is such an empirical object. It is a photograph of field notes typed by Patricia Kent in 1975, while she and I resided in a tiny, bat-infested wooden house at P. I. [Indigenous Post] Ibirama, a government-run indigenous reserve in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. The original notes were part of an ethnographic encounter, situated within space and time. As I examine them today, nearly two decades later and more than four thousand miles removed, I recognize them as part of a present empirical world, and also as my link by an invisible thread to a remote and forgotten corner of the planet, to a world gone by, the notes' still faintly musty and smoky smell rekindling old sensory experiences.

I give below a different representation of Plate 1, as well as of the two cards that follow it in the file:

9-15-75 (W. T.)

He was hunting with Kañãïi and Wãñpõ.
Wãñpõ said that it was a tapir that the dogs were chasing.
They stayed waiting on a trail,
and soon the tapir came running down the trail.
They hit it with an ax,
and it fell over, still a little bit alive.
So Wãñpõ got a vine,
and said that they should tie it up.
Then they started to pull it along by the vine.
They stopped and the tapir was lying belly-up,
waving his legs in the air.
Wãñ&etilde;kï was feeling sorry for the animal,
because he was still alive.
Kañã'ï said for him to help pull,
but Wãñ&etilde;kï said that he wouldn't help.
So Kañã'ï said that he would pull it by himself.
So they went on for a ways.
They decided to take off the skin.
They started taking off the skin,
but the tapir was still alive,
and waving its legs.
Wãñ&etilde;kï was saying that they should leave it there and go on,
because it could harm them.
But Wãñpõ said that he wanted to get a piece of meat to bring home.
Then they decided to take out the guts and cut open the belly.
They took out all of the innards except for the heart,
which was still beating.
At each beat of the heart,
the tapir's head would move to one side
and then back again at the next beat. Wãñekï again said that they should leave this animal and go on,
because it was going to harm them.
But Kañã'ï said that his wife was waiting for him
and would want some meat.
Wãñpõ said that tapir meat was even better than pork.
Then Wãñekï was looking at the tapir's heart,
which was the only organ left inside the body,
when it all of a sudden appeared as though the heart had looked up at him
and then down again.
Wãñekï became afraid,
and told the others.
Wãñpõ said that he didn't even want to hear about that stuff,
and cut himself a piece of meat to take home,
as did Kaña' ï
Wãñ&etilde;kï didn't want any, though.
They all started walking away,
and Wãñekï turned around to look at the tapir,
which was standing up,
and shaking its head at him.
The others also turned to look,
but didn't say anything.

I cannot doubt that Plate 1 is a photograph of a physical object of experience that is here before me—a tangible, visible entity providing the public a access through the senses that empiricism regards as fundamental to knowledge. And you will probably agree that my representation of this physical object in the lines above resulted in a different object, but one that is a more or less regular physical transformation of the first. What you will regard as crucial, however, is that this physical object is not only sensible—dark shapes leaping out at the eye against a light background. It is also intelligible. That is, you know that those shapes are the bearers of meanings, and you recognize in the meanings something resembling a story, a narrative of an occurrence.

As soon as one steps into the realm of intelligibility, the problem of the specific language (English) by which these meanings are carried becomes crucial. Language is brought to bear on and presupposed in the ability to experience an object as meaningful. It is that quintessential pre-empirical backdrop of a present sensory encounter from whose vantage point one can criticize the empiricist project. But, if you accept that criticism, there is another issue. Speaking English is by itself not sufficient to allow you to recover the specific meanings associated with this physical object of experience. You must have a sensory encounter with the object. There is, in other words, an empirical condition for access to these meanings, even if there is also a pre-empirical one in the language you speak.

I have argued in an earlier work that the cultural specificities of grammar must have some basis in experiences analogous to our encounter with the physical object, the text artifact, depicted above. The Saussurean system we call language only appears to be pre-empirical. In fact, it is built up out of repeated encounters with discourse as a physical object, discourse such as is reflected in the text artifacts above, or in instances of actual speech. This long history of encounters—beginning with earliest childhood and continuing up to the present—provides the empirical, experiential basis for a culturally specific, as opposed to a universal, grammar. But the historical empirical foundations of the culturally specific grammar do not detract from the important insight that one does bring to bear in momentaneous encounters with specific text artifacts or bits of discourse, insight that existed prior to the artifacts. That insight is pre-empirical or pre-experiential in this special sense. One superimposes it on the text artifact that is the elect of immediate scrutiny. You can think of meaning in this way as half subjective, deriving in part from something that is not there for you to hold at the moment.

But if meaning is half subjective, it is also, importantly, half objective. You know this because the specific text artifact might have been different. Depending upon the nature and degree of difference, the meanings would have been different as well. The objective characteristics of the sign vehicle matter; they fight back against solipsistic tendencies; they are the reason for doing ethnography in the first place-an endeavor that might otherwise degenerate into pure projection, as some critics have charged. Discourse, as a socially circulating empirical phenomenon, keeps the ethnographer honest. It ensures that he or she is retrieving something from the realm of the senses.

If grammar is a pre-experiential foundation for experience of the text artifact—at least in the limited sense discussed above—you might wonder whether it is the only such pre-experiential foundation. Is knowledge of grammar alone sufficient to furnish an understanding of the text artifact? Or, put differently, how much do you understand about the meaning associated with this text artifact as it currently stands? What more would you need in order to grasp the significance of it for the particular social encounter out of which it grew, and, perhaps also, for related social encounters?

One issue here is what has been termed in the literature "metadiscursive framing"—how this discourse itself is represented through other signs. I have already framed it, in some measure, by referring to it as "resembling a story, a narrative of an occurrence." That framing places the instance of discourse, and the meanings associated with it, relative to others, but I could get more specific, as did the participants in the encounter that produced the artifact, by framing it as a dream narrative, and you would have been cued in by an encounter with the remainder of the text artifact:

[Then he woke up.
he told his wife about this dream;
she said that it was a bad dream,
and it was a good thing that he had told her about it.
It was a bad dream, because the animal never died,
it must not have been a tapir,
but something else, maybe a gàyun (spirit).
He is also going to tell this dream to Wãñpõ.]

The story takes on a different meaning, framed metadiscursively as a dream. From discourse-internal properties, an educated Westerner might otherwise read this as a type of fiction, because, in part, the metadiscursive interpretation of narratives of realistic events does not permit statements of the sort: "Then Wãñ&etilde;kï was looking at the tapir's heart, which was the only organ left inside the body, when it all of a sudden appeared as though the heart had looked up at him and then down again."

Of course, you probably already guessed that we were out of the realm of documentary narrative with the statement: "They took out all the innards except for the heart, which was still beating," and, if not at this point, then when the animal's head moved back and forth in time with the heart. The narrative simply does not make sense to us—and the "us" I am referring to here is educated Westerners—as an account of what empiricism regards as ordinary experience, since it is out of accord with other discourse describing biological functioning. We cannot imagine that a heart would continue beating once the other organs were removed, let alone that the animal's head would be moving in time to the beats, unless, of course, this were a description of a scientific experiment involving electrical stimulation—a possibility ruled out by earlier portions of the narrative. But until this point, the narrative might have passed as documentary, a recounting of personal experience told secondhand.

Whatever the specific text-internal cues—and there may be, in some stretches of discourse, none—the principal determinant of metadiscursive framing is discourse external to the stretch in question, which is nevertheless "about" that stretch. Such is the case with "he told his wife about this dream" and "he is also going to tell this dream to Wãñpõ." The word "this" points to the stretch of discourse physically preceding it. It creates a relationship between that stretch of discourse and the word "dream." The word "dream" in turn tells the listener or reader how to interpret the relationship between that preceding stretch of discourse and the experienceable, phenomenal world. The tapir narrative is a narrativization of dream experience.

So here you have one fragment of discourse ("this dream") which is about another, longer fragment of discourse ("He was hunting with Kañã'ï..."). Both fragments are half subjective, requiring the preexperiential or pre-empirical cultural foundations we have been discussing, and yet also half objective, that is, not derivable from the earlier discourse alone but dependent upon an empirical encounter with the sign vehicles in question—the tangible, publicly accessible objects of experience that carry them along. At the same time, the two bits of discourse are related because the one (the metadiscourse) is about the other (the narrative). The problem here, consequently, is analogous to that of the relationship between an instance of discourse and some nondiscursive object of experience to which it might pertain.

What are we to make of this? Let's pursue the question of what it might mean to frame the narrative as a dream. For an educated Westerner, this framing will relate to how you are to understand the connection between the narrative and the rest of reality. And it will mean that you are able to dismiss it with respect to the broader empirical project: the delineation of a public world of common experience, reality, and truth.

Metadiscursive framing accomplishes this by separating the dream narrative from genres of documentary discourse, asserting a boundary between them, and denying the significance of the former for the latter, while asserting the explanatory power of the documentary genres with respect to the dream narrative. But is the label "dream" sufficient to accomplish this? You must conclude that no, the label merely summarizes broader patterns of interpreting or talking about the discourse. It is those broader patterns that are crucial to the epistemological position of the dream narrative with respect to the empirical project.

In modern Europe and America, the dream is of little or no public interest. It is not thought to pertain to anything outside the individual. It is inconceivable, for example, that a dream narrative from an American president should become the focus of national interest. The interpretive or metadiscursive patterns associated with dream narratives define them as irrelevant to the empirical project. Although dreams are experiences, they are not the kind of experiences capable of revealing anything fundamental about the universe or about the inner workings of things.

In contrast, the interpretive patterns in the P. I. Ibirama community from which the above-recounted dream narrative emerged define the experiences to which that discourse pertains as of definite public interest. Correspondingly, the dream narratives are actively circulated, providing evidence about an external reality to which the community as a whole is attuned and in which they have an abiding interest. Dreams are not defined as simply individual fantasy material without import for the collective endeavor. Rather, they provide entry into a realm beyond or behind surface appearance, the waking, visual shapes being only one manifestation of essences or, to borrow Kant's terminology, noumena as opposed to phenomena, but not the only manifestation and perhaps not even the most important one.

This is apparent from the brief snippet of interpretation reported above: The dreamer's wife tells him, after he has awakened, that the animal "must not have been a tapir, but something else, maybe an gèyun (spirit)." In her reported interpretation, she claims that a part of reality has been revealed to the dreamer—spirits or forces that animate the world but that are not apparent to the waking eye in everyday circumstances. Yet because they animate the world, they are of public interest, relevant to the commonweal.

This does not mean that metadiscourses in this community always encourage people to make their dreams public—"it was a good thing he had told her about it." Examination of other instances of interpretation that are part of the same discursive field show that the dreamer is sometimes coached to withhold dream experiences from the public: "His wife says that he shouldn't tell anybody about his dreams, because perhaps he would become a shaman as a result..." But here the motivation for withholding the dream narrative is not its irrelevance to the broader public. On the contrary, the withholding may allow the dreamer to achieve special knowledge or understanding or experience that puts him in a privileged position relative to the public.

Almost the opposite situation obtains in the case of Western interpretive patterns, including psychoanalysis. Here, dreams are considered irrelevant to the public; they do not provide access to a realm of common interest, for which, on the contrary, everyday waking experience—and especially visually confirmable experience—is paramount. This is why we want to hear a leader's waking thoughts about the world, but we never discuss his or her dreams. For psychoanalysis, dreams are important for what they reveal about individuals, but not for what they reveal about reality. Like fiction, they do not reflect a different facet of a complex reality, but rather fantasy or imagination or unreality.

What accomplishes this is the metadiscursive framing or interpretation of the discourse in question. Such framing determines how a given instance of discourse is to be understood, and, in interpreting an instance, it also shapes and builds up an understanding of the world, of reality. As a provisional definition, we might say that reality is that which is of public interest, of concern to the commonweal, where we understand interest to be reflected in socially circulating discourse construed metadiscursively as descriptive and nonmetaphorical.

This is by no means a denial of empiricism, since the community is interested in things that affect it, and the peculiar focus of Western empiricism—waking experience of things—does in part take into account what affects the community. But you can imagine communities differing as to whether the Western understanding takes into account all of what is of public interest. The above example, of course, suggests that it does not, that at least in that one instance metadiscursive patterns construct a public external world that includes, but is not limited to, what is accessible through Western empiricism.

Of course, this does not mean that every discourse that publicly circulates is a discourse of reality. Metadiscourses can define public functions for discourse other than the disclosure of reality. In the educated West, for example, we have entertainment and aesthetics separated from the disclosure of reality. This may be part of the continuing attempt to restrict the valid empirical encounter, which in other metadiscursive traditions is opened up, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that there are, everywhere, some exclusions of this sort.

From the proposition that reality is constructed by the community, however, it does not follow that anything goes, that the floodgates are left open, that the we-are-only-superimposing critique of ethnography obtains. You find instead an empirical constraint on the metadiscourse that defines the relationship between discourse and reality; it itself must socially circulate; it must be encoded in publicly accessible, sensible sign vehicles. And not just anything will circulate. The discourse that does achieve a wider currency does so because of its effectiveness in helping a community to exist in the world. The discourse is like a membrane or thin film that is simultaneously in the world and yet a filter through which the perceptible world is passed and its underlying realities understood.

Because a key feature of publicly occurring sign vehicles is not just that they are sensible but also that they are intelligible—and intelligibility requires the superimposition of a whole history of encounters with discourse onto a present instance—metadiscourses may vary in how they structure what is of public concern. But not just anything will convince a public about what it is that affects it. Indeed, you have to leave open the possibility that some metadiscursive formulations may be universally more convincing than others. The ethnographic experience makes one aware that the Western framing of empirical knowledge is one among alternatives, but you cannot deny that that alternative may have, ultimately, a broader public appeal than others, as the international public sphere widens its scope of operation. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, this is a matter for empirical investigation.


Our journey to Brazil began in Chicago. It was the summer of 1973—and in those days there seemed to be perpetual summer. We were glued to our television sets as the drama of Watergate unfolded before our eyes—obsessed with names like Haldeman, Erlichman, and John Dean, that now only vaguely recall the sentiments in which they were then steeped.

The University of Chicago had been the site of student protests in the late 1960s, and protests continued into the 1970s, but we were dazzled as well by the acorporeal intellectuality that flourished there, like a garden of ideas overdosed on fertilizer; the incomprehensible lectures of the famous philosopher Paul Ricouer, whose almost comical French accent enabled us to pick out only fragmentary, but no less epiphanic, utterances (the four questions of Immanuel Kant—What can I know? What must I do? What may I hope? What is man?—were barely discernible), contrasting (somewhat later) with the logical lucidity of Donald Davidson, the final effect of which was no more, for all its apparent rigor, comprehensible. Nevertheless, the proximity to ultimate understandings seemed palpable, although it vanished like some vaporous apparition when we tried to reassemble it in smoke-filled rooms and coffee shops with odd names like The Bandersnatch.

In the anthropology department itself, Clifford Geertz had come and gone, but traces of his presence were everywhere, the culture concept mingling with structural functionalism, brought to life by visits from Meyer Fortes and Raymond Firth—giving the department a British club atmosphere the density of pipe smoke—and by senior students returning with stories from the mysterious "field" (a narrative space kept alive in this little discourse community by informal encounters, in our case, those wonderful evenings with Anthony and Judy Seeger, then just back from Brazil). And structuralism was the rage, though it flowed into Marxism, culturalism, and the rest more like a lava lamp bubble, the whole configuration constantly oozing and shifting, and managing thereby to hold us transfixed.

My wife and I had already been to Rio for the summer of 1972. Flying in again in May of 1974 was no less magical. We were aware that impeachment proceedings against President Nixon were set to begin back in the United States, but the aerial view of Copacabana Beach nestled into the Serra Geral mountains; the tropical vegetation; the heavy, bus-fumed air; the breakfasts of carefully cut oranges, papayas, and assorted fruits with toast, jams, and ludicrously rich Brazilian coffee served up on thick white tablecloths by waiters in crisp white dinner jackets; and the turtles and macaws in the lushly vegetated courtyard of the National Museum, where the anthropology department was housed—all marked this time and place as special, different from what we had left behind, like stepping into a Carmen Miranda movie, and we did indeed see Carmen Miranda look-alikes at tourist spots, especially at the Pão de Açucar, or Sugar Loaf, with stacks of fruit perched atop their heads, re-creating the movie images for those who came there to find them, in that global circulation that was coming to be culture.

But it was also the heyday of military repression in Brazil, and truckloads of young men—some mere boys—in army fatigues, carrying tommy guns, were stationed at street corners. The Brazilian Navy reportedly held target practice off Copacabana Beach. And the United States had not yet pulled out of Vietnam, so that the era of post-World War II supremacy was still manifest in our dealings; the open, breezy American style was not yet so openly identified with imperial aspirations the way it would be, and the way British accents and demeanors had been around the globe a generation or two earlier.

For us, however, there was the exoticism of Brazil, and it would only deepen, change its hue, but never again be so noteworthy, as we bid farewell to civilization, whose amenities seemed already significantly curtailed in Rio. From no hot water to no running water was a mere matter of degree. And only a few steps down from the omnipresent "Fusquinhas," or Volkswagen Beetles, scurrying about in tightly packed, but always improvised, clusters on Rio streets was the í950 banana yellow army Jeep, originally part of the U.S. Geological Survey, which haltingly carried us into the hinterland, its gears held in place, we later found, by tin cans hammered in as bushings. (You may want to know, incidentally, that dried corn cobs make excellent battery caps, and Brazilian rot-gut rum, known as cachaça, has the viscosity of brake fluid.)

As you drive inland from the coast at Florianópolis, you ascend a lovely and ancient mountain range known as the Serra Geral, whose peaks rise above 3,000 feet. The range is a continuation of the mountains that stretch along the entire east coast of Brazil. About one hundred or one hundred and fifty miles inland, you reach their peaks, and the rivers flow in the opposite direction, moving westerly toward the great drainages of the Amazon, farther north, and the Paraguay-Paraná to the south. The enormous plateau of central and southern Brazil is homeland to peoples who were among the last to be disturbed by Western civilization in the twentieth century. In the vast, and then still considerably uncharted, area from just south of the Amazon to the far south of Brazil were to be found seminomadic peoples and part-time agriculturalists speaking related languages grouped under the names Jê or Gê in the anthropological literature. The best guess of scientists is that peoples speaking these languages have probably occupied this remote upland region for several thousand years.

As the first drops of rain began falling that gray, overcast afternoon—which my field notes indicate was the 21st day of July in 1974—I had to remind myself why I was there. We had passed the last town before Indian country. It was known as Ibirama, a quaint German settlement with cobbled streets on which roamed horses and Volkswagen Beetles alike. From there the dirt road turned to mud with the first drops of rain. The gears on our jeep began failing one after the next, as we slipped and slid, the drizzle turning into a downpour. Fewer and fewer settler dwellings could be seen as afternoon turned into dusk. The only other traffic was going in the opposite direction—frighteningly huge, fully loaded lumber trucks descending at improbable speeds, causing us to swerve and nearly careen off the road into the Itajaí River some fifty or a hundred feet below. Lumber trucks? We knew that the great Araucaria forests of southern Brazil were rapidly vanishing, but where was this lumber coming from? Much of it was from outside the indigenous reserve that had been established at P.I. Ibirama. We would later confirm, however, that some of it was being sold by the Indians themselves to lumber companies that today have shifted their locus of activities farther north into the Amazon basin.

Was the trip going to be worth it? The road narrowed, with a steep slope on the left, a sharp drop-off to the river below on the right. At its narrowest point stood a lovely German-style cottage, with lush tropical gardens surrounding it. This was the home of Eduardo de Lima e Silva Hoerhan, legendary frontiersman, who as a young man had established the first peaceful contact with the indigenous group known variously as Bugres, Shokleng (or Xokleng), Botocudo of Santa Catarina, Aweikoma, and Kaingang of Santa Catarina. That year was 1914, and "Seu Eduardo"—as he was known to locals—was still alive and lucid in 1974, though it would be months before we actually met him.

Thinking back on it today, the stories told by settlers and Indians alike seem fantastic. Seu Eduardo had a trained horse, which he rode into saloons, having it dance about on its hind legs as he shot off his revolvers. Seu Eduardo had killed the government Indian agent originally in charge of the "pacification" project. Seu Eduardo had murdered an Indian. Yet here was a cultured, intelligent man who spoke and wrote several languages, and was eager to converse about Freud and physics. He had grown up in Rio, in an upper-class world. He told us that he had been attracted to the frontier by the romantic image of the Indian popular in earlier twentieth-century Brazil. He announced one day to his mother that he was going off to pacify wild Indians in the wilderness of Santa Catarina. His mother said, as Seu Eduardo reported, and as I will never forget: "You will repent; you will cry tears of blood; you will eat bread that the devil has kneaded." On a lazy afternoon in 1975 he told us that it was all true, but that he had never repented. I did not appreciate then that I would never see that great friend and colleague again. By the time I returned to Brazil in 1981, he had already died. His house, once so vibrant with frontier life, had been abandoned and partially destroyed in a flood. The Santa Catarina frontier had come to a definite end.

As I write this, I know that the memory flashes by because of an association with his house, which marked the entrance to the indigenous reserve. We unwittingly drove past it for several kilometers until we rattled to a halt in front of a few wooden structures marking the outskirts of the Indian post—P. I. Ibirama. At that time, the government Indian agency was headquartered across the river, about a half mile up a steep hill. We crossed over the river on a suspension foot bridge. That night it was gloomily dark and raining steadily and hard. Fortunately, as the bridge swayed and we stumbled along, we could not see the innumerable broken and missing and severely rotted planks. An army colonel and his aide, there to hunt, would later fall through, plunging sixty or so feet into the waters below. That night we crossed safely, and were greeted by the acting post chief, Isaac Bavaresco. We would become close friends with Seu Isaac and his wife Dona Tina, close enough to be shown Isaac's silver pistol and the scar from a bullet that had traversed his abdomen. That night we were thankful to be dry and safe and to have hot rice soup to eat.

The rains menaced us for two weeks, cracks of thunder and lightning breaking open the thick dark gray mist, that musty smell caused by mildew beginning to permeate our possessions. We were largely confined to the Indian post. The clay mud was so thick that we could not walk in our Brazilian sandals, known locally as "Hawaiians." Even our bare feet sank to the calves in mud. It seemed that we would never meet the Indians. As Lévi-Strauss had said: "Anthropology is a profession in which adventure plays no part; merely one of its bondages, it represents no more than a dead weight of weeks or months wasted en route; hours spent in idleness when one's informant has given one the slip" (1968 [1955]: 17). We spent our time in idleness, waiting for the rains to stop.

Why were we there? Presumably, to continue the investigation of Jê social institutions begun by David Maybury-Lewis (1979) in the 1960s, under the auspices of the Harvard Central Brazil Project. Maybury-Lewis (1965, 1967) himself had lived with the Xavante, a group belonging to what is thought of as the central branch of the Jê family. Among his students, Jean Carter Lave and Delores Newton had gone to live with the Krikatí, Julio Cezar Melatti with the Krahó, Roberto da Matta with the Apinayé, and Joan Bamberger and Terence Turner with the Northern Kayapó, all groups that were part of the northern branch of the Jê family.

My wife and I had studied Jê ethnology at the University of Chicago under Terence Turner, and so considered ourselves grandstudents of David Maybury-Lewis, whose book Akwe-Shavante Society formed the basis for Turner's year-long course. It was the 1970-1971 academic year, and I recall Turner's deep, barrel-chested voice resonating throughout that drafty Classics classroom, light filtering through leaded gothic windows as we squirmed to find comfortable positions in ancient, straight-backed wooden chairs with attached writing arms. Despite our physical discomfort, Turner kept us rapt as we pored over genealogies, inspected residence charts, pondered the symbolic meanings of rituals, and examined photographs for a you-are-there sense of central Brazil.

Despite the immense contribution of the Harvard Central Brazil Project, it became apparent that little was known about the southern branch of the Jê family, in the then-modern social organizational sense, although Jules Henry (1941) had spent time between 1932 and 1934 at P. I. Ibirama, and Herbert Baldus (1952, 1955) had worked with the Kaingang. The group settled at P. I. Ibirama was one of three that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Eduardo Hoerhan established contact with the group in 1914. The remnants of a second group—largely decimated by raids from the P. I. Ibirama community as well as Brazilian "Indian hunters," known locally as bugreiros—was settled several years later near São Jodo dos Pobres farther to the north and west. The third group was never successfully contacted. They continued to make news, raiding settlers in the area, until the 1950s, when they abruptly disappeared. In the early 1970s, the Brazilian anthropologist Silvio Coelho dos Santos mounted an expedition to contact the survivors, then thought to be wandering in the Serra do Taboleiro south of Florianópolis. This is what had attracted our attention to the area in the first place. The group was never contacted, however, and if any Indians were still occupying the area, there could not have been more than a family or two. The area was simply too small to support a community of several hundred. So, we ended up at P. I. Ibirama.

The rains finally did subside. We went to visit some of the indigenous households, and were profoundly disappointed, for reasons that now seem worth recalling. If Rio was a self-consciously exotic city—constructing itself at least in part after the movie images tourists wanted to see firsthand—the community at P. I. Ibirama was outwardly unexotic, maybe even anti-exotic. The indigenous population wished not to attract attention to itself as a distinctive cultural entity, but to blend in, to become invisible. Men had given up using the lip-plugs that had so marked them in earlier generations, though the holes in the lower lips of many older men were still plainly visible. Most members of the community dressed not much differently from the local Brazilian settlers, and their houses resembled settler dwellings, stretched out over about ten kilometers on either side of a road that traversed the reserve. In addition, many younger people were already fluent in Portuguese. When we first met Wãñekï, whose dream narrative opens this chapter, he was wearing a Columbia University sweatshirt and a baseball cap. We despaired of finding a distinctive and actively flourishing Amerindian culture.

All that would change over the course of the year. When we finally did observe the widow's seclusion ceremony, and the subsequent festival for reintegrating the widow, there was before us a plainly palpable indigenous culture. Men doffed their Brazilian clothes and donned their traditional costumes, painted their bodies, danced and sang in unmistakably indigenous ways. But none of this was for public consumption outside the reserve. No Brazilians were invited and only a handful of Kaingang showed up. The outward display of indigenousness had not yet become popular—as it has in the 1980s and 1990s among the Kayapó, Eastern Timbira, Xavante, and other groups. The latter have recognized their media image as a resource in political struggles. This was not true at P. I. Ibirama in the mid 1970s.

There the contrast between what I call the sensible and the intelligible slowly clarified, like shapes at dawn solidifying out of the darkness. While by outward, perceptible signs the indigenous population blended into its Brazilian settler surroundings, there was an inward, actively circulating discourse imbuing the world with a wholly different significance. There were stories of a land above the sky, through which men entered by means of a hole in the sky vault. There were reports of a land of the dead, where ants appeared as jaguars, and people nourished themselves on dirt. And there was the world of dreams, in which individuals encountered spirits behind the surface of everyday waking reality, like walking through a mirror in Jean Cocteau's Orphée. This was not the world of Brazilian settler culture.

During our stay, relations between the community and the Brazilian government via the government Indian agent, the official representative of FUNAI—the National Indian Foundation—were continuously turbulent, sometimes exploding. There were countless reasons for this, not least of which was the lack of funds to carry out promised projects. But the principal source of friction concerned lumber. Many members of the community wanted to sell off wood in exchange for various goods, including, in some cases, electric refrigerators, though there was at that time no electricity in indigenous houses. I was opposed to this, regarding the forest as a key component of the patrimony, though my arguments were invariably brushed aside, like an annoying fly.

In any case, the turbulence at the FUNAI post provided us with an incentive, after a few months, to take up residence in an unoccupied indigenous house, conveniently situated between the homes of two men whose voices emerge prominently in this book—Wãñ&etilde;kï and Wã&ntiolde;põ. We were accorded some privacy, as a married couple, a situation that would change completely when I returned alone in 1981-1982. Nevertheless, our house, along with those of Wãñekï and Wãñpõ—and, I imagine, every other house on the reserve as well—was the locus of continual comings and goings, innumerable conversations and storytelling sessions, as our competence in the indigenous language improved. I cannot claim to have achieved fluency during this first year and a half, but I could get by well enough to obtain numerous tape recordings, which I studied in earnest upon our return to the United States in March of 1976, after spending several additional months among the Kaingang of Ivaí at P. I. Manoel Ribas in central Paraná, and returning to the United States via the Andes.

With a few dramatic exceptions, our life there was tranquil, even bucolic. We made weekly trips to town for supplies. The bottled gas we brought in enabled us to type and read in the evenings, and to operate a two-burner cooking stove, which greatly facilitated our lives, since I was hopeless at picking out good firewood. We spent our days conversing with visitors, asking questions, tape-recording, visiting other households, or just observing the general goings-on. We had a massive invasion of native rats after the ripening of the bamboo, events said by local Brazilians to happen once every twenty years. The rats would leap all about, jumping over our shoulders onto the table, scrambling for whatever food was available. Bats lived in our roof and would awaken us each morning as they returned from their night's labors, scrambling for position. Flocks of prattling parrots descended upon neighboring fruit trees—the resultant cacophony sometimes making it impossible to converse. Once an enormous spider—said to eat fledgling birds!—leaped out of a tree onto my shoulder as I walked through the forest. Another time a huge lizard, at least six feet long, appeared on the road before us as we rounded a bend while returning from town. It was all part of a normal state of affairs. The serene existence was belied only by the circulating discourse, which was filled with magical occurrences of an animated world, with endless historical narratives of times gone by, and with dark rumors of political intrigue and mounting tensions.

Every three or four months, we traveled to São Paulo or Rio to meet with anthropologists, stock up on supplies, and see movies. One sunny afternoon, we were approaching the reserve, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, when out of the bush popped a camouflaged figure wielding a tommy gun, motioning for us to stop. In Brazil you are required by law to carry in your car a reflecting triangle and fire extinguisher. He asked whether we had ours—we did not. Then he asked stone-facedly for identification and told us to wait, which we did, and he disappeared into the bush. In a few minutes, he returned with a friendly-looking commanding officer, who informed us that the area had been cordoned off as a means of preventing the further extraction of lumber. However, he knew that we were American anthropologists, and he allowed us to proceed. Later at a bar outside the reserve, federal police officers clashed with some members of the community. Shots were fired, but no one was seriously hurt. Some rumors would circulate that we had summoned the army. By the time of our departure, however, the situation had calmed.

As our departure neared, Wãñpõ proposed that we adopt one of his own young daughters, one whom he himself had adopted. By that time, we had already been given indigenous name sets—my names were Mõgñã (Sucks Honey), Kañã'ï, and Lugmũ, names that had once belonged to one of Wañpõ's two fathers, who had been captured from a different group. Now the adoption would solidify our ties to him. After considerable soul-searching, we decided against it. The lovely Mu (pronounced [mbu]) was a constant delight, but how would she have adapted to life in a small Chicago apartment, separated from everyone she knew? Clearly, the idea was crazy, and yet it seemed so natural at the time. And then there was our constant companion, a black-and-white spotted dog named bolinha (little ball). Wã&ntiolde;põ wanted him, and we wanted to take him. In the end, Wã&ntiolde;põ won out. I learned later that bolinha had died within a year—though, as Wã&ntiolde;põ told me in 1981, his was a valiant death, resulting from a fight with another dog twice his size over a female.

Five years later I returned, this time alone. So much had outwardly changed. The government had constructed a dam, which was to flood a considerable portion of the reserve. Its purpose: to prevent flooding in the downstream city of Blumenau. Ironically, when the rains came, and the dam broke, it resulted in the worst flooding in their history. Nevertheless, many people had moved. The community had fissioned, one group moving off into a remote corner of the reserve known as the "Bugio" (Howler Monkey), where they were unattended by FUNAI. Wã&ntiolde;põ had remained, but had moved his house to the other side of the road, further up the hill. And to my dismay I learned that our great friend and companion Wãñekï had died. When I listen to tapes of him today, and read the transcripts, I marvel at his intellect, at his ability to cast the traditional mythology into a philosophical understanding of his existence. His was a great loss.

In retrospect, my life during that year there seems hectic. I was never alone, even while wretchedly ill and desiring privacy. I befriended a young man named Nãnmla, whom I taught to write the indigenous language, and who helped me transcribe the numerous tapes I was amassing. This freed up my own time to wander around with my tape recorder and lavalier microphone, recording whatever interesting discourse or sounds I happened upon. A considerable portion of my time was spent with the oldest man in the community, Nil (pronounced [ndíli]). We wandered the forests, he teaching me about the plants and animals, the stories, the meaning of the world around me.

Greg Urban is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals.

"This is one of the most sophisticated explanations available on the many and varied links between language and culture.... By constantly juxtaposing the sensible and the intelligible, [Urban] shows the adaptive qualities of culture and communication, and casts an old controversy about social organization in a totally new light. As abstract as this may sound, it is concretized with one of the best explications in print about the process of ethnographic fieldwork and how an outsider can go from observations of behavior to analysis and interpretation of historical and sociocultural patterns and processes."

"The only ethnographic work on a small scale society by a linguistic anthropologist which is accessible to scholars in other disciplines.... A major and distinct voice on how language and culture work together."
—Benjamin Lee, Director, Center for Transcultural Studies, Chicago

Senior Book Prize
American Ethnological Society