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Texts also are things

As Karin Barber would surely agree, the value of a book depends in part on its audience, in fact, on the presumed audiences inscribed in it. The title and explicit goals of Barber’s recent book suggest audiences of students and scholars for whom “the anthropology of texts, persons and publics” is a novel idea.  The book is part of a series billed as “new departures in anthropology.” But audience here poses some interesting problems.

The book is a fine guide for those who are innocent of its key concepts such as “genre,” “oral text,” “entextualization,” “intertextuality,” “reflexivity,” and “performance.”  The first two chapters outline the overall approach:  “Texts,” Barber writes, may be oral or written; they are verbal weavings or fabrications defined by an internal coherence that makes them detachable from ongoing talk and action, and also renders them re-contextualizable. This process of “entextualization” combines fixity and fluidity, thereby allowing the apparently opposed processes of imitation and creativity (continuity and originality) to occur simultaneously. It allows texts – understood as practices, as performances – to be the focus of special, reflexive attention, making them interpretable through specific genre conventions in the community that produces them.

Within this orientation, Barber presents a dazzling and richly detailed array of Africanist materials, often in controlled comparisons, in order to gain “a sense of how textual meaning is produced in other cultures,” (viii). Ethnographers, she urges, should study the “…varying ways in which people have conceptualized the nature and effectuality of words and texts…” For: “Only by attending to the conventions of texts and to their specific, distinctive ways of creating form in language can we understand what texts are made to do and say,” (p. 13).  Rather than merely looking through texts to the states of affairs they seem to represent or the things they do socially, anthropologists should come to understand that “texts also are things – by which I mean that they are social and historical facts whose forms, transformation and dispersal can be studied empirically,” (p. 200).  In short, the interest is in the process of objectification that creates, rather than the physical corpus that is the product.

All this is important and exciting. But for linguistic anthropologists, the distinctive set of conceptual tools evoked here is home-base, quite familiar.  Those of us in the U.S. who have been working with these concepts and goals for decades will find quite surprising Barber’s assertion that they constitute an approach that would not occur in an American tradition (p. 20).  She states she is embarked on a project basically different from that of the American anthropologists, folklorists and performance theorists who are, by her own account, the sources of these ideas. While always careful to identify the individual writings that inspired her, she casts the book as a personal intellectual adventure, giving the impression that the approach itself is her own assemblage. She does not write as a contributor to the thriving, interdisciplinary, “invisible college” identified through these key concepts. For me, this opened a question about the social organization of academic knowledge. The point is worth a detour, before I discuss the book’s contributions.

Framing this work as a personal journey, Barber stages two encounters: one between European literary criticism and social anthropology; the other between British structural-functionalism and American cultural anthropology. As an undergraduate studying “New Criticism,” she was taught to “go eyeball to eyeball with the ‘words on the page.’” Later, in Nigeria, she confronted “discomforting” ways of making, interpreting and evaluating oral poetry. As she puts it, “my project ever since has been to bring the two sides of my education together,” (viii).

Concerning the second encounter, she argues that for the British, locally-generated texts were important, but treated as means for gathering data on the “ideational aspects of social structure,” and not themselves worthy of investigation, (p. 17).  The Boasian orientation, by contrast, made possible a series of text-focused approaches: ethnography of speaking, ethnopoetics, a conceptualization of text as culture and the Geertzian, metaphorical view of culture as text. “The Americanist ethnographic tradition is an anthropology to, for, by, with and from texts…texts as data, method and outcome.” As a result, she argues, in that tradition there could not be an “anthropology of texts… one that seeks to understand texts and textual traditions in the light of something else…[such as] social relations … or modes of production,” (p. 20, italics in original).

Others can evaluate Barber’s picture of the British scene. As to the American side: This view effectively erases the multi-sourced conglomerate that has gelled in the last fifty years as linguistic anthropology, the source of the concepts Barber embraces. Linguistic anthropology is usually captioned as the “study of language in culture and society.” It relies explicitly on an emergent, constitutive notion of culture (as in Sapir), and on sociological notions, such as Goffman’s concept of participant roles in verbal interaction. Linguistic anthropology also asks large scale sociological questions: e.g. how ideologies inscribed in the practices of institutions like schools, legal systems, lineages, or polities make some verbal and expressive genres more valuable and effective than others, even as the genres enact the authority of such institutions.

Literary approaches (Jakobson, Kenneth Burke, Raymond Williams) shaped the views of Bauman and Briggs, Silverstein and Urban, and others on whom Barber directly relies. Jakobson and Burke were sparring partners of the New Critics whom Barber studied; all of them were similarly attuned to form in literary and linguistic materials. Jakobson played a key role in bringing Bakhtin – a Barber favorite – back to scholarly attention.

The sharp irony, therefore, is that – contra Barber – there has long been a lively commerce between literary and anthropological approaches, at least in some quarters. Furthermore, the American trend in which “everything is text” is specifically not characteristic of linguistic anthropology (Gal 2006). That might be why Barber has found its re-conceptualization of “text” so useful, as both a semiotic and a social process.  Why not join this invisible college, since Barber is clearly already in its social and intellectual networks?

One clue lies in a third perspective, a regionalist one.  Just as Barber’s distanced view of U.S. scholarship may have led her to blur scholarly boundaries, my own Europeanist background delayed my recognition that Barber’s book is part of her long-standing, influential efforts to constitute a Cultural Studies of Africa that considers African “popular” artistic forms – especially verbal ones – on their own terms. The refusal to class them as “traditional” versus “elite/modern/Westernized,” leaves one in search of alternative analytical tools (Barber 1997, 2006). It is clarifying to see the book as also inspired, if not so explicitly, by this important intellectual and political project.

Returning to the volume at hand, the most impressive aspect of Barber’s current book is the depth, detail and range of material on African verbal performance in social context, although there are also classic examples from elsewhere. The recognition that genres are relational and not independently existing entities encourages the further and valuable insistence that oral and literate forms must be seen together, within “textual fields” that include both modalities. Finally, Barber’s strategy of controlled comparison deserves special mention as an important direction. The book devotes separate chapters to “genre,” “person,” “publics” and “the private.”  Of the many specific analyses that invite comment, I consider only two: on genre and personhood.

In “Genre, society, history” Barber first presents what she calls a “macro” view, as in some sociologies of literature that seek to show how literary form fosters a particular historical consciousness or different ones attached to different class segments. Similarly Barber asks how the distribution of epic poetry in Africa correlates with patterns of social organization. Thus: “…[T]he Haya epic articulates the values circulating in quasi-feudal pre-colonial Haya states, in contrast with [epics] of West African Sahelian empires and [epics of] the village kingdoms of central African forests” (p. 58).

Yet Barber’s final example of epic – in the pre-colonial Rwandan kingdom – constitutes a deep critique of such a correlationist approach. It suggests a more processual view of the relation between verbal arts and political organization. In Rwanda, epic-form and performance were harnessed to consolidate elite power, elaborating the aristocracy’s privileged aura. Secrecy and veiled meanings allowed textual forms to be devices of exclusion, “bearers of social relation,” not simply correlates. “The differentiation of genres did not merely “reflect” relations of hierarchy and solidarity: it was a significant and central mechanism by which those relations were established and maintained” (p. 65). This analysis, I suggest, echoes theoretical arguments from other parts of the world: comparison must take a more mediated form. As Barber shows, verbal genres are not fixed to social categories or groups; they can be multiply taken up, re-animated and transformed across categories and across social formations.

Comparison is central too in “Text and personhood,” a chapter that discusses how praise genres are constructed, and then compares Dinka ox songs, Ila praise names, and Yoruba big men’s panegyrics. Barber describes each group’s social organization, explaining what categories of persons perform the poetry, with what social aims and consequences. Drawing in part on her own prize-winning ethnography of Yoruba oriki, she shows beautifully how, in each case, the specific form of text “precipitates” a culturally specific (relational) form of self. “Through the precise, distinctive and remarkable ways that these praise genres put words together … we can catch glimpses of what it is to be, and to become, a person in Dinka, Ila, and Yoruba communities” (p. 136).

I admire Barber’s focus on textual form, and consider it indispensable. But I want to draw attention to the role of reflexivity, as discussed in other parts of the book. In praise poetry as in epics, there is no direct correlation of textual production with  “social organization.”  Under that deceptively simple label Barber hides a wealth of diverse cultural materials and details of practice.  Studies of personhood in other parts of the world have unpacked these under the rubric of “cultures of language” or language ideologies or metapragmatic (hence, reflexive) frames or presuppositions. These mediate between social organization and talk, enabling the enactment of selves in performance, and also in the unfolding of ritual events, and in everyday interaction.  By considering such mediating processes, one can do more than compare. One can ask, as Barber sometimes does, how re-signification of poetic genres in new social contexts allows them to serve different functions across social formations. This leads to the processual, historical study of re-contextualizations.

Barber’s thoughtful book is an integrative addition to the study of African verbal arts.  It should also spur scholars to think more about the distribution and re-animation of genres.


Karin Barber (ed.), 1997, Readings in African Popular Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Karin Barber (ed.), 2006, Africa’s Hidden Histories, Bloomington, Indiana University Press

Susan Gal, 2006, Linguistic anthropology, in K. Brown, (Editor-in-Chief) Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics, Second Edition, Volume 7, pp.171-185, Oxford: Elsevier

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