Language as Institution

2 anthropology books I got around to reading recently have both ended on the note of taking cues from language: specifically, celebrating the mutability of language and its customs and fashions as that which is characteristically human.

One could say that democracy itself is based on the assumption that the metis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land. Common law, as an institution, owes its longevity to the fact that it is not a final codification of legal rules, but rather a set of procedures for continually adapting some broad principles to novel circumstances. Finally, that most characteristic of human institutions, language, is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.

seeing-like-a-statech. 10

It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. It is not for nothing that we all have the picture of the schoolmarm rapping a child across the knuckles for some grammatical error as one of our primordial images of oppression. But at the same time, if there were no shared conventions of any kind—no semantics, syntax, phonemics—we’d all just be babbling incoherently and wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other at all. Obviously in such circumstances none of us would be free to do much of anything. So at some point along the way, rules-as-constraining pass over into rules-as-enabling, even if it’s impossible to say exactly where. Freedom, then, really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating. And this is what linguists always observe. There is no language without grammar. But there is also no language in which everything, including grammar, is not constantly changing all the time.

We rarely ask ourselves why that should be. Why is it that languages always change? [...] Human beings, whether they speak Arapesh, Hopi, or Norwegian, just find it boring to say things the same way all the time. They’re always going to play around at least a little. And this playing around will always have cumulative effects.

What this suggests is that people, everywhere, are prone to two completely contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a tendency to be playfully creative just for the sake of it; on the other, a tendency to agree with anyone who tells them that they really shouldn’t act that way. This latter is what makes the game-ification of institutional life possible. Because if you take the latter tendency to its logical conclusion, all freedom becomes arbitrariness, and all arbitrariness, a form of dangerous, subversive power. It is just one further step to argue that true freedom is to live in an utterly predictable world that is free from freedom of this sort.

utopia-of-rulesch. 3


utopia-of-rules Graeber, David. 2015. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Melville House Publishing. ↩︎ 1

seeing-like-a-state Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. ↩︎ 1