The Pandemic of Emic

The Pandemic of Emic (and the pathetic of etic?)

            Kenneth L. Pike’s massive 1954 opus in linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics takes one of its cues from Roman Jakobson’s useful distinction between phonetics and phonemics. The former is the linguist’s scientific rendition of a language in question, the latter’s how it is actually spoken by the native. Shortening these terms to ‘etic’ and ‘emic’, Pike coined a duet of discursive diminutives that, over the course of a half a century, became standard fare across the disciplines. No doubt such success was beyond his original expectations. What he never would have suspected, however, was that the emic, which by definition was to be understood as non-discursive, would haul itself into serious discourse and of its own accord. But this is precisely what we have witnessed, especially in the 21st century, as a multi-generational fashion for vaulting social, and even mere personal, experience into objectificity has overtaken epistemology itself. In short, the native’s point of view has come of scientific age.

            Though the emic was a necessity in and to any ethnography – sometimes communicated by the so-called ‘key informant’, which in many a classic anthropological study from the colonial period, turned out to be the pith helmet’s only informant, and just as often, an entire village desired to speak; in such cases, the anthropologist realized he had discovered rifts within even the smallest scale societies – it was never considered, nor was it ever to be considered, the final word on how things ‘really were’. It is well known that none of us, as children of specific cultural and historical periods, can see the entirety of the forest no matter how minutely we see a few of its trees. The immediate implication here is, of course, that we lack the big picture, and this expresses itself with morbid delicacy in our geopolitics. By 1961, Edmund Leach was one of the first in-house critics of this kind of ethnography, wherein the emic was given center stage. Not only was it titillating, even thrilling, to listen to the ‘’wild’ voices describe their world and how they lived in it – Malinowski’s 1929 ‘The Sexual Life of Savages’ was a best seller in the interwar period – these varied valedictions valorized the average reader, who could see herself living this or that way, if only she could escape the bonds of her own stale stoicism. If Woolf epitomized this theme in her novels, the female prisoner of both society and her own soul the leitmotif of early literary feminism, then it was the ethnographer who directly competed with the novelist in alluding to the European’s bad conscience following the Great War, and along far more than just lines of gender and sexuality.

            A rakish and reckless wit might exclaim, ‘If the ‘queerest’ of queer theorists, if the ‘blackest’ of black scholars, only knew!’ The emic, well before it was even given a useful epithet, had begun its lengthy ascent to discursive dominance as soon as the earliest of ethnographers began to listen to it. Perhaps the first ‘moment’ in this careening anti-epistemological career occurred by the mid-19th century, in a footnote to a Bureau of American Ethnology publication in which an extended narrative taken from one indigenous fellow is disputed by another, the second man being reported simply as ‘Two Crows denies this’. Does he indeed.

            This is the entire problem with any emic point of view: it lacks the ability to self-verify. The novelist well knows that veridicity and verity are two quite different things. That is perhaps the hallmark of good fiction; that it isn’t real but it comes across as being so. Whether or not Woolf herself confused the two is as maybe, but certainly many of her acolytes over the succeeding century have quite happily done so. If one enlightened thing can be said about the colonial ethnographers, none of them were deluded into imagining that what the native said about anything could be taken as the truth entire. And when I say, anything, I mean anything at all. It was only with the advent of the fourth generation of anthropological studies that we find the emic and the etic beginning to bleed into one another, and thus what was once ethnography beginning to read more like a novel. Experiential immersion was the goal of these experimental texts, and as brilliantly expository as they are, they are nonetheless not representations of scientific observation. Not quite emic, neither etic, narratives such as the superb ‘Nine Dayak Nights’ by Geddes or Radin’s ‘Primitive Man as Philosopher’ contain much beauty and perspective alike. But while these persons, however ‘primitive’, can certainly be poets, sorcerers, even journalists, they cannot be scientists, let alone philosophers. None of us can be either of these, without the extensive training and worldly outlook that all traditional cultures notoriously lack.

            While anthropology had belatedly heard the call of emic-based book sales, some anthropologists, and in the case of Jung, even one or two psychologists and mythologists, had heard the call of the emic itself. ‘Going native’ is surely a cliché, once again more entertaining in the hands of a novelist than ever in an ethnographer herself, but within that moment of regression-conversion, there is tacit another element of the emic’s discursive ascent. While we can leave it to Peter Gabriel and other modern musical sorcerers and poets to celebrate Jung and the like, we ourselves must press on with distinguishing fact and fancy. In doing so, we discover that the heedless headlong hurry to place emicity and its prenatal perch, along with its attendant rustic logic of the log, atop contemporary ivory pillars, is actually based on the resentment the dominant discourse feels for itself. For back-dropping the pandemic of the emic is the pathetic of the etic.

            If the world of the native is parochial, never moving beyond its own limited horizons, the worldcraft of the etic is absent of humanity-as-it-is. By the mid-1960s, this had become self-evident, and Geertz was one of the leading figures in the attempt to construct a ‘middle-range theory’ of humankind. Still far too discursive to satisfy the provincial palette of the emic ‘voice’, a scant decade later we would witness the beginning of today’s penchant for ‘social location’, the much-vaunted marque of apparent authenticity in the human sciences. If Geddes were a Chanel, Patricia Hill Collins might be a Diane von Furstenberg, who staunchly maintains that ‘we women are stronger than men’, and such-like. At once we are told that social location cannot by itself generate discourse, while at the same time, in every such study, this is precisely what occurs. The emic is no longer merely only a means to an etic, it itself has become the etic. What this means for human understanding is tantamount to the attestation that science does not exist, only the ‘voices’ of individuals, limited and inexperienced as they are.

            Overlaid upon such voices is the chorus of vox humana emanating from the locational theorist. In a very real sense, this is little different from any colonial ethnography; it is only ‘post’ colonial because some local is now the anthropologist and she doesn’t wear a pith helmet proper but some recognizably native gear that somehow vouchsafes against her own parochiality. The indigenous anthropologist writing about his own culture is certainly interesting and presents a perhaps more-validating manner of retelling the emic than having to go through the foreign ethnographer, part court reporter part parish priest part dime novelist as he may have been, but it is no less biased and no more authentic. We say this because authenticity is not autobiography, not even biography. And social location studies in fact read more like distended autohagiographies than anything else, mimicking many, if not most, contemporary novels. This is the key: that we have forsaken the scholarly and ethical work necessary to distance ourselves from our own dreary druthers. The result is a social science that looks like Subaltern Salvation Army tracts and novels that read like diarrhetic diaries.

            Pike, and especially his genius teacher, Edward Sapir, would have been appalled, no doubt. Even so, the fault lies somewhere near their feet, just as Sapir’s own teacher, Boas, the person who essentially invented cultural anthropology, opened the discursive door perhaps a hair too far in also inventing the concept of cultural relativism. As a student of hermeneutics, I would be last person to argue that there is but one truth in the world, or even but one world in truth. What I do suggest, however, and this in the face all the varied voices of such worlds, is that we must not lose sight of the very point of self-study; it is to reveal the self’s misrecognitions and misunderstandings of itself, and not to revel in its own limitations, neither revolt against the history of consciousness as an objectifying force, nor to revile the three millennia tradition of insight, groping and gradual, into the essence of what makes humanity our shared lot, gift and task alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Will the Real Feminists please Stand up!

Will the Real Feminists please stand up!

                        The state exacts the utmost degree of obedience and sacrifice from its citizens, but at the same time treats them as children by maintaining an excess of secrecy, and a censorship of news and expressions of opinion that renders the spirits of those thus intellectually suppressed defenceless against every unfavourable turn of events and every sinister rumour. It absolves itself from the guarantees and contracts it had formed with other states, and makes unabashed confession of its rapacity and lust for power, which the private individual is then called upon to sanction in the name of patriotism. (Freud, 1957:293-4 [1915]).

                With the news of the imminent return of Afghanistan to the dreaded and derided Taliban, in spite of two decades of war and some 830 billions of dollars in funding, equipment and training, of thousands of casualties, of rapine and murder and mayhem that makes the usual business of warfare appear nonchalant, in spite of all of the hand-wringing and head-scratching and the ignoring of history, one receives, along with all of this other disbelief, the truer message of the stakes; that ‘this is a war on women and the world is watching it happen’. This is the claim now making its way into media and I think it lies near the essence of the conflict, which is in fact a global one. If one takes such a claim seriously, then can it be but tantamount to a call to arms?

            Alexander ‘the great’ is still considered by many military historians to be the best leader of his kind known to history. Though he carved out a vast empire, introduced the idea of cosmopolitan into the world, exhorted both trade in resources but also in ideas, and saw the city named for him blossom into the most important cultural center of the day, including its famed library, taking his triumphs all the way from Egypt to India, yet he took one look at Afghanistan and said, ‘forget it’. This was well over 2300 years ago. Ever since, lesser leaders and lesser generals, though with equally brave soldiers, have attempted to prove their apical ancestor wrong, with dire results. It is difficult to not view the current cataclysm as both a giving up as well as a giving in.

            But if this conflict is really about the oppression of women by men, then where is the army of feminists to counter it? And, we might ask more generally, why is there not such a force already in existence? The USA has ‘Blackwater’, for instance, and Russia has, rather ironically, ‘Wagner’, and so on. So where is ‘Hypatia’, as I am going to name it, though it does not yet exist? Where is that just force of women who are willing to actually fight for their global sisters, lay down their lives for them in a fifth wave of feminism that moves from the activist and somewhat ad hoc fourth wave to a true mercenary machine? How many liberated women are there, actually, in the world today, who have the prescience, the skills, and the simple guts to take on the likes of the Taliban? There is nothing about modern military equipment that would defeat a healthy woman’s physique. This is no problem of logistics, or even ‘bias’. Women can fight just as well as men, and by the gods do they have a greater cause.

            The idea that, on the one hand, this is a war against women, which it surely at least in part is, and the sense, on the other, that these same women can appeal to nation-states so aptly described by Freud near the start of the first world war, led mostly by men and staffed mostly by men and protected by soldiers who are almost exclusively male, is nothing less than ludicrous. If this is truly a woman’s fight first and foremost, then Hypatia, an organization which should exist in principle, without respect of country, creed, or credit, must needs destroy the Taliban and all like them, globally and without mercy, to the very last devious, disgusting, desperate but also lost soul of man. For women to be authentically liberated means the closing of cathedrals, the jacking of gestation, the banning of burlesque, the hacking of all hackneyed hooks telling us that women are and thus can be only beautiful or nurturing, only either Eve or Mary, the seducer or the redeemer and it is thus men, and only men, who act in the world as it is. And what action we may observe.

            So if those who claim to be feminists won’t say it, it falls to the middle-aged white male European philosopher to do so. That is, the scion of the history of Western consciousness, the very source of all that is feminist in this yet medieval world of ours, the space and place of general human freedom, unimaginable in other cultures, and the well-spring of the better future which still believes in not only the individual, but also her utterly human ability to act and work in the world of acts and works which only appears to be masculine and yet which desires, as with all masculinity, to rape itself into a self-loathing from which no one, woman or man, will ever escape.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over 45 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.