Linguistic Anthropology and Critical Theory

As used here, the term critical theory refers to work produced by a set of thinkers who might best be understood as shadows of the enlightenment -- Bacon and Hobbes, Kant and Hegel, Marx and Freud, Darwin and Nietzsche, Saussure and Peirce, among many others. While these thinkers are, to be sure, radically heterogeneous in many respects, they all ponderd the limits (and sometimes the limitlessness) of knowledge and power. In some sense, they all understood human-specific forms of agency, and mediation more generally, to be simultaneously cage, claw, and key.

This chapter is meant to characterize the core theoretical claims of linguistic anthropology while, simultaneously, critiquing the culture logic underlying its practices of claim-making. The title, then, is meant to do double-work: we will take a critical look at theory in the discipline of linguistic anthropology by foregrounding its dependence on certain moves in critical theory. As will be seen, such practices turn on the repeated deployment of a small set of interrelated moves, themselves closely linked to such limits: replace any mediated relatum with a mediating relation; reframe any entity or event as the precipitate of a process; and recast seemingly monodimensional figures as flattenings of multi-dimensional frameworks.

The first section simply summarizes a dozen or so relatively axiomatic commitments of linguistic anthropologists, showing how they are all structurally similar in their invocation of a particular metaphor -- why live (or, rather, think and theorize) in Flatland when there is affordable housing (or, rather, readily available analytic tools) in Textureville? The next six sections treat mediation in detail. They characterize two key modes of mediation (conditioning and representation), and the ways these modes (when subject to processes such as framing, embedding, disturbing, and reflecting) effortlessly generate almost all of the major claims made by critical theorists (as incorporated by linguistic anthropologists). In some sense, then, my claim is that there is a very simple "grammar" that generates almost all the major moves in critical theory and, insofar as we have inherited many of the claims of this tradition, those of our own discipline. And the conclusion develops some of the stakes of this fact.