Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools


Welcome to the seminar

Is it “good to talk” (Cameron 2000)?

Marx, true to his commitment to material explanations of history, writes in The German Ideology that in order for us to speak of people as conscious, self-aware, rational agents, we must see them first as animals who must satisfy their basic needs and who will propagate themselves by having children with each other. People depend on each other for their material existence. Hence, he writes, only when all of this material and social infrastructure is laid down,

do we find that man also possesses “consciousness,” but, even so, not inherent, not “pure” consciousness. From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. (Marx and Engels [1844] 1972, 158)

Far from being evidence of human beings’ uniqueness, the ability to speak, and the natural languages people use, are tools for using other people. Our ability to think and to communicate ideas is, furthermore, a side effect of using language-tools for material ends. Like any other tool in a definite mode of life, language uses us when we use it.

Consider also a kind of low-grade scholarly meme which has circulated since at least 1970. The idea that “language is a virus [from outer space]” is often attributed to William S. Burroughs, although he originally suggested that written words were a virus, and Laurie Anderson also deserves mention (Burroughs [1970] 2005; Halberstam and Livingston 1995; Mitchell 2013; Turner 1992). The idea is that humans acquire language because they are infected at birth with a virus that makes it possible for them to speak. Because the symptoms of this infection—speaking—are thought to be beneficial, the language-virus and its host population are in symbiosis. Under such circumstances, the language faculty is perceived as an expression of individuals’ innate qualities.

This class asks us to take both of these ideas seriously. Marx is dismissive of a unique role for language in consciousness, but what if he was more right than he knew? What if it is exactly because the use of language is “agitated layers of air” it makes us who we are. Rather than being a transparent medium—like air—for our thoughts, the material dimensions of language connect us to each other—like air! (If Covid taught us anything, it is that we are all breathing each other’s air.) Language matters precisely because we use it and it has a material effect on the world.

It may sound cliche but it is undeniably true that everyone is connected to everyone else. That would also mean that we are parts of a vast circulatory system. If people exist primarily for others, then it follows that we can’t not communicate. Life itself is sending and receiving various kinds of signals. In this class, we will consider the argument that a lot of contemporary topics social scientists want to understand better are in fact questions of how people use languages to communicate. This also means that an anthropology of communication is a distinct way of doing anthropology. with unique insights into the questions other anthropologists want to answer.

While in many ways this class surveys a wide and diverse field, it is not meant to provide a comprehensive, let alone complete, picture of this field. Rather, the main payoff for students is that they will gain a new set of tools for thinking about communication practices and ecologies of communication. Each topic is meant to expand how how we think about things that seem familiar, rather than add to a stock of knowledge. In some ways the topics are chosen because they are difficult in one way or another. Some works we will read will require purely abstract thinking. Others will be shocking or unfamiliar for other reasons. I chose these topics for one reason only: I wanted to expand my own imagination. I wanted to know more about them. That’s all I expect of my fellow students. The goal should never be mastery or expertise, and so nothing in this class will ask you to demonstrate that you know everything or understand anything completely. Instead what we will do is to help each other become better thinkers.

Like many classes at the upper undergraduate level, this class is organized as a seminar, and thus centers on an open discussion among students. I provide guidance to the discussion. I will not, however, give any lectures in this class.1) Each week we will come together to help each other understand a set of readings better. Each week’s readings represent the work of one important scholar whose ideas have influenced the development of anthropology. Our job in this class is to enter into this kind of discussion, and thus become part of this scholarly community ourselves. Every week, we will know if we have done a good job if:

  1. students have done most of the talking, and
  2. everyone in the class has had a chance to ask questions and contribute their ideas.

Your participation in discussion is, in that sense, something you do for your fellow students. By offering your views, especially to people who disagree with you, you help them to reflect critically on their own reasoning. Likewise, when you seek out the perspectives of other people, you are able to become aware of your own thought processes. This is ultimately what you will take away from this class: an understanding of your own perspective, rather than familiarity with the ideas of major theories.

Everyone has a first seminar. For some students, open participation in a class is totally new, and can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable. Part of making a seminar successful is helping everyone feel like they can join in, even when its their first seminar class ever. Discussion is important to this class—and it is a part of your grade—but I am not assuming that it will come easy to everyone. What I expect is that each person try their best, and keep trying. What you can expect from me and from your fellow students is that we will all help make the class comfortable and welcoming to everyone’s participation. One way we can achieve this is by using various formats for class discussion, including small work groups, discussion with a partner, and in-class writing. If your active verbal class participation is not possible, you can also talk to me about other ways you can participate in class.


Burroughs, William S. (1970) 2005. The Electronic Revolution. Ubu Classics. https://www.ubu.com/historical/burroughs/electronic_revolution.pdf.

Cameron, Deborah. 2000. Good to Talk?: Living and Working in a Communication Culture. London: SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446217993.

Halberstam, Judith M., and Ira Livingston. 1995. Posthuman Bodies. Indiana University Press.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. (1844) 1972. “The German Ideology.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, translated by S. Ryazanskaya, 146–202. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Mitchell, Peta. 2013. Contagious Metaphor. A&C Black. Turner, Mark. 1992. “Language Is a Virus.” Poetics Today 13 (4): 725–36. https://doi.org/10.2307/1773296.

And since there are no lectures, there are also no lecture recordings for this class either.
3621/2024/welcome_to_the_seminar.txt · Last modified: 2024/01/16 20:23 by Ryan Schram (admin)