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February 9, 2020


Michael Carrithers

Most excellent. I've read your last two blogs, and find they strike to the heart of what anthropologists of the sociocultural kind have to deal with. We're taking a term or expression in one lifeworld and translating it -- or maybe better, transforming it -- into the smaller space of academic prose, where the performative element, something like 'I, the author, am telling it like it really is!', is pervasive and highly constraining. With any luck, of course, that transformation is also modified, but energized, by the quality of the fieldworker's effort to figure out what the expression meant before transformation.

Then there are two useful strategies to achieve a more or less effective transformation. One is to transliterate the original term (The Buddhist Pali word *dukkha* strikes me as a good example, meaning something in the range between 'unsatisfactoriness and suffering'), and then play with it so as to explore some of the weights the term has in different usages in the original setting. The second is to create a somewhat distorted English term, say by italicizing and English word, or capitalizing it, and then playing with it. Neither of these strategies are at all unique to anthropology, but they have this in common, that they force the attentive reader onto new ground, 'making strange' in order to lead the reader toward increasing familiarity.

In any case the terms 'denotation' and 'connotation' are little help. It's more like a move from no competence to passive competence in another language. Or from complete alienation to partial recognition.


One can read this and indulge in self-amusement for hours. That's exactly where I stopped.
"I never use these words anyway, but always talk around them, aware that they pose an objective and irresolvable problem to anyone who cares about language, and understands that real mastery of language is not just about getting things right, but calibrating one’s expression of what is right so as to allow its performative aspect to be evident only as much as one wishes."
What do you think of the work "pound" in context of Iraq, Afghan wars?


Two things:

1) The verb "golden" also exists in German (the non-inflected form is... "golden“). Yet, he did not write "Gold ist ein goldenes Metall". Possible that the German "gelb" is more related to "golden" than "yellow". Arguably, the specific color term would rather be "goldgelb" (i.e. golden yellow), which is an actually existing German word (not a productive composition I just made up), while "golden" might also mean something like "of gold". But then again, maybe not, and the sentence "Gold is a yellow metal" has the same meaning as the German original and thus exactly corresponds. Meaning that the claim that this sentence cannot even be translated needs to be shown, not asserted (German and English are close, after all), just as the contrary assertion of course.

2) That atomic numbers are "getting at the true and proper definition of, for example, gold" as compared to "superficial features" is, I think, seriously wrong - at least in the context of the present example. Kant characterizes it in two ways: It has a certain color, and it is a metal. Both terms refer to *bulk* properties of a connected ensemble of many atoms. The atom itself has none of these properties: An atom has no color, and it also has no metallic properties. To the extent that elements are called metals, it refers to the bulk property of the element at standard conditions mapped back onto the periodic table, i.e. *exactly* the superficial characteristics that Kant uses. That the bulk properties are already set by the atomic characteristics is neither here nor there: It's the bulk, an emerging property, that *makes* the property, not the atom. (A human body is not a list of its organs, neither are those a list of their cells, or these of their organelles, etc.) In other words, talking about the atom and the metal just is not the same thing: The first is a homonym to the second that just was not available to Kant, not a "superficial property":

Homonym 1: gold = yellow, a metal, etc.
Homonym 2: gold = a chemical element with a given number of protons etc.

These are of course related in that the first is made up of the second, but the first, crucially, also has interactions between them: The properties of the first are *not* the same as those of the second, but *emergent* (bulk properties). There is a certain "water is H2O" tradition in semiotics that seems very confused (or rather not sufficiently confused) about this.



The *adjective* golden, what the...?!

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