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As knowledge becomes more interrelated, the greater the necessity for teaching to take on a multi-disciplinary approach. Consequently, this issue of CDTL Brief examines some experiences of and issues behind Cross-disciplinary Teaching.

April 2002, Vol. 5 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
When We Read English Articles:
The Logocentric Anthropologist & Art Students
Mr Hideki Yoshikawa
Part-time Lecturer, Graduate School, Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, Japan
Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, Canada

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 anthropology’s logocentric nature and art’s 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. Snow’s 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’ matter.

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 reality.

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 Bourdiue’s 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: Polity Press.

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 Press.

Snow, C.P. (1993). The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1959). Course in General Linguistics (C. Bally & A. Sechehaye with A. Riedlinger, Eds.; W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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