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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?

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