Issue 3.2, May 1988


Essay Excerpt

An unfamiliar landscape, like an unfamiliar language, is always a little daunting, and when the two are encountered together-as they are, commonly enough, in those out-of-the-way communities where ethnographers have a tendency to crop up-the combination may be downright unsettling. From the outset, of course, neither landscape nor language can be ignored. On the contrary, the shapes and colors and contours of the land, together with the shifting sounds and cadences of native discourse, thrust themselves upon the newcomer with a force so vivid and direct as to be virtually inescapable. Yet for all of their sensory immediacy (and there are occasions, as any ethnographer will attest, when the sheer constancy of it grows to formidable proportions) landscape and discourse seem resolutely out of reach. Although close at hand and tangible in the extreme, each in its own way appears remote and inaccessible, anonymous and indistinct, and somehow, implausibly, a shade less than fully believable. And neither one, as if determined to accentuate these conflicting impressions, may seem the least bit interested in having them resolved. Emphatically "there" but conspicuously lacking in accustomed forms of order and arrangement, landscape and discourse confound the stranger's efforts to invest them with significance, and this uncommon predicament, which produces nothing if not uncertainty, can be keenly dis- concerting.

Surrounded by foreign geographical objects and intractable acts of speech, even the most practiced ethnographers become diffident and cautious. For the meanings of objects and acts alike can only be guessed at, and once the guesses have been recognized for the arbitrary constructions they almost always are, one senses acutely that one's own experience of things and events "out there" cannot be used as a reliable guide to the experience of native people (Conklin 1962; Frake 1962). In other words, one must acknowledge that local understandings of external realities are ineluctably fashioned from local cultural materials, and that, knowing little or nothing of the latter, one's ability to make appropriate sense of "what is" and "what occurs" in one's environment is bound to be deficient (Goodenough 1964). For better or worse, the ethnographer sees, landscape and speech acts do noi interpre their own significance. Initially at least, and typically for many months to come, this is a task that only members of the indigenous community are adequately equipped to accomplish; and accomplish it they do, day in and day out, with enviably little difficulty. For where native men and women are concerned the external world is as it appears to them to be-naturally, unproblematically, and more or less consistently-and rarely do they have reason to consider that the coherence it displays is an intricate product of their own collective manufacture (Schutz 1967). Cultures run deep, as the saying goes, and natives everywhere take their "natives' point of view" very much for granted.

In this way (or something roughly like it) the ethnographer comes to appreciate that features of the local landscape, no less than utterances exchanged in forms of daily discourse, acquire value and significance by virtue of the ideational systems with which they are apprehendedand construed. Symbolically constituted, socially transmitted,and individually applied, such systems operate to place flexible constraints on how the physical environment can (and should) be known, how its occupants can (and should) be found to act, and how the doings of both can (and should) be discerned to affect each other (Sahlins 1976). Accordingly, each system delineates a distinctive way of being-in-the-world (Ricoeur 1979), an informallogic for engaging the world and thinking about the engagement (Geertz 1973), an array of conceptual frameworks for organizing experience and rendering it intelligible (Goffman 1974). In any community, the meanings assigned to geographical features and acts of speech will be influenced by the subjective determinations of the people who assign them, and these determinations, needless to say, will exhibit variation. But the character of the meanings-their steadier themes, their recurrent tonalities, and, above all, their conventionalized modes of expression-will bear the stamp of a common cast of mind. Constructions of reality that reflect conceptions of reality itself, the meanings of landscapes and acts of speech are personalized manifestations of a shared perspective on the human condition (Shutz 1967). (Basso, 99-100)

Basso, Keith H. "Speaking With Names": Language and Lanscape among the Western Apache. Cultural Anthropology 3, no 2 1989. 97-223