At the end of the day, before I lose consciousness for the night, I often get trapped in worries about the future, or nostalgic thoughts about my life and my past. Sometimes I end up dismissing all of them as my ego out of control. “I am”, I tell myself in an attempt to bring me back into the here and now. I tend to think way too much. It impedes my actions during the day and keeps my awake at night. I sometimes think consciousness is a burden, and envy the lack of self in regular animals. I have learned, though, that everything has its place and time, especially my thoughts; and these thoughts have a function in life and study: drawing meaning from experience through symbols.By drawing meaning from life experience, which from the point of view of the self is always the past, I free myself to experience more life.
So not only should we study the past, but the study should be in the form of a conversation between the self and the other with the goal of bridging the distance through subjective interpretation of the other as it relates to the self’s general conception of what it all means.Actual experiences are always something foreign to the self, but they all have a meaning that the self can draw from. It is self evident that we live in the moment. Right now is the only thing I have a complete experience of. In that moment, before any thoughts put order to it, there is no distinction between self and other. If the source of both the self and other is the same absolute, eternal present, than there must be a place where the duality can come together again. If this distinction that creates our sense of linear time can be resolved, than it is conceivable that this notion of time is a function that the self uses carve out meaning and order. “Time…is a carrier of significance, a form through which we define the content or relations between the self and other”(Fabian 1983: ix).
I argue that this form is only a tool that we have created to bring order to some object that is driving us to find meaning in our actions. All of our actions would be strictly animal and instinctual if we did not think life meant something. As anthropologists we study the human experience because we assume that it means something. We cannot be free from our selves as a species until we figure out the other as it relates to life on this planet. Therefore it is imperative that we attempt to find the meaning of the past, if we are ever to have a future beyond self-contemplation. As both actors in culture and students of it, we must accept the notion that whenever we try to put meaning to something, that something becomes a symbol, a distinction, removed from the actual object. This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to put meaning to it. Just because any meaning taken from the other is filtered through the self, doesn’t mean that there is no real meaning beyond the subjective. We just have to make sure we know and aim for the object through the only connection we have, the eternal present. By doing so we come closer to what it means to be human. “The concept of culture I espouse…is essentially a semiotic one.
Believing, with Max Weber, that man is suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning”(Geertz 1973: 5). Anthropology is based on the assumption that there is some conceptual truth out there of what it means to be human, if only as an abstract object to aim for. All of anthropologists’ work would be meaningless without this assumption. While the details of the innumerable cultures past and present are very interesting, information for its own sake is pointless without interpretation. In fact even statements that seem strictly factual are always somewhat distorted by syntax. If I were to say, “the people are eating”, I am still interpreting their experience through my own culturally created self. Some say that the goal should be to try to set aside our biases as much as possible, to try and be as objective as possible.
I take this to be a misplacement of Anthropology’s object. The object should be to make general inferences about humanity, with full acknowledgement and emphasis on the Anthropologist’s biased but essential individual perceptions of the event witnessed or object studied. I am sure the temptation to use Anthropology to make general statement statements about specific cultures is great. When confronted with something foreign the tendency is to associate the other with ideas of race, gender, and individual societies. Statements like “Women in Somoa do this”, and ideas like the noble savage are detrimental and false. The object of study should be man, not men. People behave very differently through out the world, and this space between people should be the subject of study, with an eye for the object, the place where the spaces meet. The other is everything but your thoughts.
The best way to study it is to seek after new experiences. The further the distance from your own cultural self one can tackle, the greater the challenge and potential for reaching that object. Anthropology is special in that it attempts to unite disciplines both humanistic and scientific into this purpose. My personal past seems like an easy object to draw from and learn because I have memories of the experience, however clear they are. When attempting to learn from other peoples past, through their account of it, or even their interpretation of the present, some could argue that the actual experience is too far removed to take meaning from. The reason this may be so is that the experience one should be taking meaning from isn’t the other person’s experience he is referring to, but the experience one has of the event.
All fieldwork should be worked dialogically, not like a survey. This may seem like a stretch, especially for an archaeologist studying the distant past, but there really is no other way to take meaning from the other, besides through the present. If an archaeologist is trying to take meaning from his artifacts, in attempt to only make judgments about the ancient society, he or she is not taking into consideration the incredible distance between them. Their work would be better utilized as a quasi-discussion between the material evidence and the archaeologist’s theories, with emphasis on the content of the relations between the two. The only reason to dig up the past is to free ourselves from it in the present. “Since the anthropologist studies insignificant things in the field, he is forced to think about his research in general terms”(Cohn 1987: 13). We don’t want to make a big deal about some dead civilization. The problem is our belief that the past is something real and significant. Its value is in its distance from us, its foreignness or otherness, not in any real intrinsic importance.
Even if I think I have a memory of some past event, it isn’t a living dynamic extension of me. It is just a symbol that my self, in the present, is using in an abstract sense to draw meaning from. Many cultures don’t have an idea identical to memory. In the case of the Luba, history is something they are always recreating to relate to people. “Memory is active, always in the present, and a construction, transaction, and negotiation, as opposed to reproduction (Roberts 1996: 29). The objects of our studies are always foreign to our selves. As soon as we think or talk about something it immediately becomes separated from us. All attempts to represent a culture by our biased interpretations of them are a continuous folly. In any interaction I have with anybody, I understand whatever there saying in terms of what it means to me in the present, and then how to react to it. The field of Anthropology, much like my mind, works much better as a teacher and student of truth than a body of knowledge. In other words, the self should be used as a weapon to perpetuate awareness, not to store information.
Take Margaret Mead for example. She lived in a foreign culture and wrote a book on what her experience of that “otherness” meant to her and her culture at that time. There was no true Somoa to represent, and who cares if there was? She had an experience and she wrote about what she learned and thought about during the whole thing. She wanted to educate people, not in details about some culture to be taken as fact, but in a way that they might experience that otherness. Not everyone has to fly to exotic places and study cultures to experience that otherness if there is someone who has, to tell about it. By reading her book, people can take meaning from it to relate to their own lives. She reached people on a national level, and made them more aware of the world outside themselves. This should be the goal of all anthropology, and I believe it was to begin with.
Herodotus has been called the father of ethnography, for his detailed accounts of what people said about their history at that time and place in the world. There is a theme running through The Histories of a lesson to be learned. It is constantly reinforcing an idea that was very important to the Greeks, but is often denied in modern culture. Time isn’t linear; it is cyclical. The cultural experience works as a continuous lesson, both for the individual and for mankind in general. As a child is integrated into a culture, a symbolic system, it first learns laws of operation by experiment, and then analyzes their symbols for meaning. Similarly, mankind in general experiments with different ways of living, and analyzes them as symbols for meaning. It has very quickly come of age from an animal at the mercy of his environment, to the most successful species on the planet.
As we approach a peak in our mastery over our environment, some may wonder what the next lesson may be. Whatever happens is first and foremost an experience, and then the symbol of this event, can be given meaning by people. Maybe we can sum it all up; that is experience the object conceptually, become our meaning, let go of our control, and break free from the web we have spun. If this is possible, our species may be able to regain harmony with nature, and possibly evolve again. In any case we first have to solve the puzzle of what it means to be human, to bring order and meaning to this disjointed distracting experience of being both an animal and an actor in this cultural drama of meaning and selfhood. Maybe we can all, collectively, as a species release ideology and culture, and unite the subjective self with the objective present. If we learn the lesson of time, we wouldn’t have to think about the past or future, because we would know what it means, and we would know what to do instantly, like an animal, but with full instantaneous understanding. In other words, we would know ourselves so well, we wouldn’t have to think about it.