GELL, Alfred. - The Art of Anthropology_1999

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Managing Editor: Charles Stafford

The Monographs on Social Anthropology were established in 1940 and aim to publish results of modern anthropological research of primary interest to specialists. The continuation of the series was made possib1e by a grant in aid from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and more recently by a further grant from the Governors of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Income from sales is returned to a revolving fund to assist further publications. The Monographs are under the direction of an Editorial Board associated with the Department of Anthropology of the London School of Economics and Political Science.



ALFRED GELLEdited by Eric Hirsch


Volume 67

@BERGOxford NewYork

Reprinted in 2006 byBerg Editorial Offices: 1st Floor, Ange1 Court, 81 St Clements Street, Oxford OX4 1AW, LrK 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, USA

First published in 1999 by The Athlone Press London, UK

lntroduction and text Simeran Ge11 2006 Foreword Eric Hirsch 2006

All rights reserved. No part of this pub1ication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of Berg. Berg is an imprint of Oxford International Publishers Ltd.

ISBN-13 978 1 84520 484 6 (Paper) ISBN-10 1 84520 484 0


List of Plates Foreword by Eric Hirsch, Department of Human Sciences, Brunei University AcknowledgmentsIntroduction: Notes on Seminar Culture and Some Other Influences Strathemograms, or the Semiotics of Mixed Metaphors Inter-Tribal Commodity Barter and Reproductive Gift Exchange in Old Melanesia The Market Wheel: Symbolic Aspects of an Indian Tribal Market Style and Meaning in Umeda Dance The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology Vogers Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps On Coote's 'Marvels of Everyday Vision' The L~nguage of the Forest: Landscape and Phonological lconism in Umeda Exalting the King and Obstructing the State: A Political Interpretation of Royal Ritual in Bastar District, Central India








2976107 136

23 4

56 7





The Published Work of Alfred Gel/ Index





Plate 1 During field work among the Umeda, photographed by an Umeda, 1969 Plate 2 In Canberra, during the years at the Australian National University, 1976 Plate 3 During the last months, with his wife Simeran and son Rohan, October 1996 Plate 4 Alfred during field work with the Muria Plate 5 Alfred Gell in 1996


FOREWORDEric Hirsch, Department of Human Sciences, Brunei University

AJfred Gell's wife, Simeran, has recently recounted the day in October 1996 when Alfred learned that he had about six months to

live: 1He had a life-long loathing of base emotionalism into which he classed self-pity, and he spurned all dogmas premised upon faith demanding a suspension of rationality and selfbood - as a degradation of humanity. To his own catastrophic news he consequently responded with a rational and cooJ, almost indifferent, fatalism and devoted himself to alleviating the agony of his family and friends as best he could, and to preparing us for what was to

come.The next day he sat down to finish the book Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, which he had begun earlier in the year. Having worked at a steady pace for about ten days, and having finished the last chapter of tkat book, he then began work on the paper which forms the last piece of this collection. It was delivered as the Frazer Memorial Lecture in Cambridge on 22 November 1996. In Decem ber, he turned his hand to this collection of essays, a project which had previous]y been urged upon him by colleagues at the London School of Economics. He planned to provide no Introduction to the collection, and the circumstances in which one was subsequently written are worth mentioning as they inform some of its style and content. During the first of many visits to Alfred, I suggested to him that an Introduction would be useful in providing a unifying framework with which readers could approach his work. Alfred was initially reluctant, because he thought such a project would - indeed should vii


be of little interest since he could think of 'nothing more boring' for readers than his reflections on himself and on his own writings. He was never one for taking himself too seriously, and he would, one knows, be urging his readers to abstain from doing so as well. Nevertheless, I persisted, and eventually in late December Alfred began to write an Introduction, a draft of which was finished within a few days. It is difficult to know why he overcame his initial reluctance, but Simeran feels Alfred had begun to adopt a semidetached observer's perspective on himself, and he approached this particular task - which called for a bird's-eye view of his involvement with anthropology - as just another opportunity for engaging his intellect. The Introduction which follows is a response by Alfred to the question of what unites the various papers written at different times throughout his career. And his response is characteristically modest and witty: aJl the papers were performances delivered for the benefit of departmental seminars. Indeed, in an earlier incomplete draft, he described the 'spirit of comedy' which he found so attractive in the discipline of anthropology. 2 These themes are not banal, although they might at first seem so, and they belie the serious intellectual conundrums with which Alfred engaged. In any case, he hoped to make elaborations on various points in the Introduction but was by then too exhausted to resume work upon it. We agreed that the best way forward would be if I questioned him on aspects of his work, using his draft text as the basis for our discussions, and then recorded his responses on tape. We met three times for this purpose in January 1997, and transcripts of some of our conversations are included in the Introduction. I have left out most of the material concerning Alfred's period at boarding school, something we explored in our discussions because it provided an insight into what Alfred termed the 'collegiate con- . viviality' that shaped his predilection for 'seminar culture'. It was at boarding school (together with Stephen Hugh-Jones and Jonathan Oppenheimer, friends and students of anthropology with whom he maintained very close ties until his death) that Alfred developed his interest and skill in the practice of wit as a medium of social communication. Upon reflection he came to see his preference for the performative dimensions of seminar culture as an outgrowth of these displays of wit which were honed and refined during his youth. In one interview, he spoke of being part of an 'intellectual elite' of his school:viii


But it was not an intellectual elite founded on how much you knew, or how well you were doing in exams, or being a swot and reading books - nothing like that. It was an intellectual elite founded on wit, the ability to make people laugh. I seem to remember we even used to give one another marks out of ten for making witty remarks and jokes. That's what our self-esteem was based on. It was a form of mild verbal aggression, a sort of verbal competition, one-upmanship, the desire to be top dog. If X says something, then you can cap it with some other funny thing, con- . tinually: what Boswell describes as 'the flow of spirits', and he was a great one for squeJching the opposition with some witty remark. I think I probably carried a lot of that sort of adolescent competition to, in some ways, be wittier than the next person into the academic work that I do. The aim is to write a paper which is essentially wittier than somebody else's paper. A book which impressed me a great deal when I read it was Koestler's book on wit and science, 3 in which he argues that humour arises through the clash of two contradictory frames of reference, or paradigms. New knowledge is always subversive of old knowledge because it involves this clash of what he calls frames of reference. I think that in so far as I had a method, I modelled it on Koestler's notion of the conflict of frames of reference, so that the aim was to be productively witty. I realize that it's very dangerous to talk about wit because it implies that one possesses it. I can afford to take that risk. The boarding school period of Alfred's life is of particular interest to me because it helps aecount for a fundamental tension in his anthropological persona. As Chris Fuller noted in his obituary of Alfred (The Independent, 1 Feb. 1997, p.l8): '[i]n many ways he was a romantic, but he was also adamantly rationalist'. While I concur with this, I think there is also another equally powerful tension present. As Alfred's student and later colleague, I was always struck by his powerful intellectual capacities and insights and his equally powerful refusal to develop a 'Gellian' school or system of thought to rival some of his other intellectualJy ambitious colleagues. The tendency is there in his book The Anthropology of Time4 and in Art and Agency, 5 but once the exercise is complete, Alfred moves on to the next topic of interest, to the next intellectual performance. In hearing him speak about his youthful interest in common-room wit and humour, and in particular his fondness for the Victorian novelistlx


George Meredith (mentioning to me that The Egoist was one of his favour