For the last three years, as a part-time lecturer, I have
been teaching a year-long course formally titled Comparative
Ethnology at the Graduate School, Okinawa Prefectural
University of Arts in Okinawa, Japan. Each year, I have 4
to 6 first-year MA students whose majors vary from ethnomusicology
to dance to weaving/dyeing to Ryukyuan (Okinawan) classical
literature. Most of the students consider themselves artists.
Despite the formal class title, what actually goes on in
our class has been largely shaped by a set of institutional
expectations placed upon me: as a native Okinawan with a North
American university educational background in anthropology,
I help my students increase their level of English while introducing
the field of anthropology to them. In our class, all the reading
assignments are written in English and come from the field
of anthropology, while the medium of interaction is Japanese.
After one year of experimenting with different subjects, the
subjects of the reading materials now revolve around the topics
of arts/crafts and anthropology (Phillips & Steiner (1999), Unpacking Culture: Arts and Commodity in Colonial and
Postcolonial Worlds, is used as our main textbook). Depending
upon the student, my class has been regarded as an English
class, an Anthropology class that deals with art/crafts,
or both. Thus, this interdisciplinary setting has provided
my students and I with an opportunity to re-examine the relationship
between anthropology and the arts from a particular point
of view, namely the translation of English articles into Japanese.
For the last two decades, art has occupied a special location
in anthropology as a subject of study and a realm of inspiration
for new theories and new methodologies. While many anthropologists
have attempted to crossover and reconfigure the boundary between
anthropology and art (e.g. Geertz, 1983; Bourdiue, 1993),
the boundary is still too often characterised by anthropologys
logocentric nature and arts defiance against such logocentrism.
In my view, anthropology is a logocentric discipline, not
so much in that anthropology attempts to be a science
in C.P. Snows sense (1993), but in that our descriptions
and explanations of cultures depend upon a particular form
of presentation of knowledge and reality: ethnography. Despite
our self-criticism and experiments with ethnography, we all
ultimately hope our words are capable of representing reality
and our understanding of reality for the readers. In contrast,
artists use their own art forms to convey what they want to
convey, whether they are emotions, feelings, aesthetics or
political statements. To artists, words may complement their
art but they will never constitute an essential part of their
art (hence the popular perception that understanding of art
does not require words). As Geertz (1983) describes, it
(art) speaks, as we say, for itself and if you
have to ask what jazz is you are never going to get to know.
In other words, understanding art is an experiential
In our class, this difference between logocentric anthropology
and art has manifested in various ways where the subject of
arts/crafts is presented and analysed from an anthropological
point of view. I ask my students to put arts/crafts, aesthetics
and the underlying human desires into certain socio-cultural-historical
contexts through anthropological and sociological concepts
such as habitus and political economy.
I ask them to capture in words the relationship between art
and its generative context because this is one way that anthropologists
understand art. In doing so, my understanding of art depends
upon and trusts the ability of words to directly represent
As my students are very suspicious of such an understanding
of art, they are keen on pointing out the violence of anthropological
theories and ultimately the logocentric nature of anthropology
in dealing with art. For example, a student reacted to my
explanation of Bourdiues take on art by saying, Yes,
we understand how society shapes our desires, aesthetics,
and tastes (that underlie the arts), but this kind of understanding
does not necessarily lead to true understanding of art.
For my students, descriptions and explanations of art in words
slip away from the essence of art; understanding of art should
be experiential. In our class, words and art are thus often
seen as having different qualities or existing in different
locations of human activities.
However, the fact that my students struggle to understand
the reading assignments written in English has gradually led
us to see the relationship between words and art in a different
light. With their relatively high levels of familiarity with
the subjects/topics discussed in the reading assignments,
my students are so eager to understand the contents of the
reading assignments as accurately and clearly as possible
that most of them conduct word-by-word translations from English
to Japanese. Unfortunately, they always seem uncomfortable
with the outcomes of their translation, even when their translations
are, in my opinion, very accurate. They claim that they need
something other than accurately translated words
to feel that they understand the contents of the reading assignments.
This something seems not to be rooted in their
linguistic capacities, but instead located in their very experience
of having the meanings of English words click
after moving back and forth from English to Japanese and back
to the original English words. This experience is, of course,
made possible by the students previous personal experiences
and intellectual training. It points to the fact that the
power of words alone is not reliable in conveying meanings
in this context of translation from one language to another.
With this experience in mind, my students and I have begun
to talk about the possibility that words and art have similar
qualities and the difference between logocentric anthropology
and art can be reconciled. We have begun to see words no longer
simply as unions of signifiers and signifieds, transparent
vehicles capable of directly representing reality in the Saussurean
sense (Saussure, 1959), but rather in terms of the hermeneutic
tradition as symbols that are capable of being interpreted
differently and capable of representing different realities.
More importantly for our class, we have begun to see words
as symbols that have to be experienced by individual human
beings to create and represent reality (Palmer, 1979; Ricoeur,
1981). In other words, the understanding of words and, by
extension, the using of words in description and explanations
are indeed experiential matters. In this sense, words are
like art. The recognition of words in the hermeneutics tradition,
which was never intended to take place in our class, has enabled
the anthropologist to see art in words and the artists to
see words in art.
We all know that we have just scratched the surface of the
hermeneutics of art and words and we have not been able to
develop nor apply the above discussion further. However, we
realise what new insights an interdisciplinary class setting
like ours can bring to both students and the teacher, as we
all have experienced it.
Bourdieu, Pierr. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production:
Essays on Art and Literature (R. Johnson, Ed.). Cambridge:
Geertz, Clifford. (1983). Local Knowledge: Further Essays
in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
Palmer, Richard E. (1979). Hermeneutics: Interpretation
Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Phillips, Ruth B. & Steiner, Christopher B. (1999). Unpacking
Culture: Arts and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ricoeur, Paul. (1981). Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences:
Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation (J.B. Thompson,
Ed. & Trans.). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University
Snow, C.P. (1993). The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1959). Course in General Linguistics (C. Bally & A. Sechehaye with A. Riedlinger, Eds.;
W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: McGraw-Hill.