7. METAPHORICAL IMPERIALISM
The study of metaphor brings up a number of perennial problems in the study of cultures
One is the search for the core of culture: Is there something that is most fundamental, that
determines other things or prior to them?
Many answers have been offered.
personality type---Ruth Benedict, famous book,
Culture, culture as
personality writ large.
Other answers: a set of values, core elements of economy or social
organization, adaptation to the physical environment---all suggested at one time or
Marx, divided society into base, structure, and superstructure, but latter-day
Marxians have often changed priorities.
Related question: how different are cultures?
What is the range of possible variation?
each culture truly unique?
Put another way, how plastic, how changeable, are human
What are the possibilities?
Famous study, Margaret Mead,
Coming of Age in Samoa
, argued that adolescent turmoil
was peculiar to western culture.
Said Samoan adolescents very free in sexuality, and so
had no hang-ups or turmoil.
Since strongly criticized, suggested that very biased, found
results that wanted. Huge controversy.
As general rule, anthropologists see lots of variation, cultural variability, but some see
limited possibilities in whatever area they study.
E.g. study of color terms: great variability in how different cultures cut up color
spectrum, but then study said there was in fact considerable regularity.
Third related question: How much does culture determine thought and action?
cultures straight-jackets or recipe books allowing one to cook up a lot of dishes and even
create new ones?
One major approach to these questions is through language.
Naive version of linguistic
determinism very common: people are like their languages.
Germans are harsh and rigid
like their consonants, Italians fluid and not rigid enough.
English much better than other
languages because has huge vocabulary.
-A German told me the Kuna language had no fixed rules, i.e. no real grammar, which
A friend said Spanish speakers lacked sense of personal responsibility because
they used an impersonal form to describe accidents: “It fell on me” rather than “I dropped
Translation and its difficulties suggest how different languages and worldviews may be.
In book by JH, I used word “mixer” about dances to suggest they were sponsored by
policemen in order to meet local women.
Excellent translator into Spanish, but we never
found a way to translate mixer satisfactorily.
(Now also strange in English, because no
longer have mixers.)
Title of book,
A People Who Would Not Kneel
, implied both that
they refused to kneel and habitually didn’t do it, untranslatable.
Also, title in Spanish put
in imperfect tense, Kuna friends said, “Oh, and now we do kneel?” which not an issue in