A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Rituals, 2nd ed.
Paperback, 6x9 in, 228 pages
Hats Off Books, October 2000
While guiding us into the rainforests and savannas of lowland South America on a quest to understand Amerindian myths and rituals, A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture is simultaneously an intellectual journey into the theory of culture, and an endeavor to fathom the human differences that are attributable to culture, from consciousness of the physical world and time to the ritual practices of chanting and speaking in secret languages.
Urban argues that we cannot assume that culture is shared; we must study the question empirically. And the logical starting point for such an investigation is the discourse that actually circulates within communities—around the campfire, in ritual chanting or laments, and in speech more generally. The book contains detailed analyses of myths that were tape-recorded in their Amerindian settings, including comparisons among distinct versions collected over time, and it explores the actual mechanisms of ritual wailing, ceremonial dialogues, and other discourse phenomena.
[Urban] breaks new ground
on issues vital to anthropology and linguistics alike, and in
the process he joins the ranks of those of us who seek to give
anthropologists new ways of recovering their lost sense of the
importance of language. (Dennis Tedlock, McNulty Professor
of English and adjunct professor of Anthropology, SUNY, Buffalo)
About the author
Greg Urban is Class of 1965
Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His
books include: Metaphysical Community: The Interplay of the
Senses and the Intellect; and, soon to be released by the
University of Minnesota Press, Metaculture: How Culture Moves
through the World.
The discourse-centered approach to culture is founded on a single proposition: that culture is localized in concrete, publicly accessible signs, the most important of which are actually occurring instances of discourse. While seemingly innocuous, that proposition opens up alternatives to the view of culture as an abstract system of meaning through which reality is apprehended and social order established. In the latter view (which came into prominence in the 1960s but has its roots in the linguistic structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure and the sociological functionalism of Emile Durkheim), culture is assumed to be shared, even though it is not localized in concrete signs, and to exhibit continuity over time. In the approach reflected here, and in other discourse-centered work, the extent of sharing and continuity is opened to empirical investigation through the comparison of actual instances of discourse usage.
To view culture from the vantage point of socially circulating discourse is, simultaneously, to gain a new perspective on those objects that have so often fascinated anthropologists—myths and rituals. In the case of myths, a dominant paradigm of the 1970s was structuralism, associated with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss and especially with his four-volume series (Les Mythologiques). Lévi-Strauss approached myths as narratives or stories in whose referential content one could glimpse the structuring logic of binary oppositions, such as the vertical space opposition (up:down or high:low) reflected in the "bird-nester" myths of central Brazilian Indians. A boy out searching for fledgling birds with one of his relatives climbs a tree or the side of a cliff, but is abandoned there by his male relative and is unable to descend until rescued by a jaguar. The vertical opposition intersects with the human:animal or culture:nature opposition in the guise of the (human, cultured) relatives versus the (animal, natural) jaguar.
From a discourse-centered point of view, however, the challenge is to see the myth not as a mental object, but rather as concrete, unfolding discourse. We do not lose sight of the boy in the bird nest, but, momentarily at least, we situate him inside the words carried along by sounds and then written down on paper and recopied and recirculated. How to see that the boy exists not in the world of the senses in a direct way, but rather in publicly accessible discourse, which in turn inhabits the sensible world; how to relocate him, giving him a place within the discursive community of which he is a part, rather than, or in addition to, the mythical village of which he seems to be a part; how to question his immorality or perdurance as a cultural symbol not on myth-internal grounds but on the grounds that, when the myth is told again, it is told differently—those are the challenges of an approach to culture from the perspective of discourse.