Boas goes low

3 minute read

While researching another question, I have been reviewing some Franz Boas. In 1936, American Anthropologist ran a piece by Alfred Kroeber which reviewed some of Boas’s ideas and work. Boas was not thrilled by Kroeber’s description and wrote a reply with what we would today describe as a rather pissy tone. I suppose he earned it, considering he had trained Kroeber himself.

In the piece, there is a short little discussion of “common” versions of myths and stories compared to more ideal versions. Boas had spent a great deal of effort cataloging myths and stories from various groups, and trained several of his students (including Kroeber) to do likewise.

May I remind Dr Kroeber of one little incident that illustrates my interest in the sociological or psychological interpretation of cultures, an aspect that is now-a-days called by the new term functionalism. I had asked him to collect Arapaho traditions without regard to the true forms of ancient tales and customs, the discovery of which dominated, at that time, the ideas of many ethnologists. The result was a collection of stories some of which were extremely gross. This excited the wrath of Alice C. Fletcher who wanted to know only the ideal Indian, and hated what she called the stable boy manners of an inferior social group. Since she tried to discredit Dr Kroebers work on this basis I wrote a little article on The Ethnological Significance of Esoteric Doctrines in which I tried to show the functional interrelation between exoteric and esoteric knowledge, and emphasized the necessity of knowing the habits of thought of the common people as expressed in story telling. Similar considerations regarding the inner structural relations between various cultural phenomena are contained in a contribution on the secret societies of the Kwakiutl in the Anniversary Volume for Adolf Bastian (1896) and from another angle in a discussion of the same subject in the reports on the Fourteenth Congress of Americanists, 1904 (published 1906) ; the latter more from the angle of the establishment of a pattern of cultural behavior. These I should call contributions to cultural history dealing with the ways in which the whole of an indigenous culture in its setting among neighboring cultures builds up its own fabric.

Of course, Boas wrote that in the “Don’t say I never did you any favors” vein, but the bold-faced line struck a chord. Stories are built of language in iterated social exchanges very much like stone tools are built of flaking decisions. Hardly an original thought, I know, but pertinent to the transmission of early-stage reduction versus formal end-products.

A version of a story that everybody sort-of knows certainly follows a different social learning dynamic than the canonical version of a story, as told by some famous storyteller – the “Homeric apogee” of a story, we might say. The canonical version may well be more conservative, depending on tradition and technology. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is kept whole by tradition and technology (writing and printing), because we consider the form of the parts essential to the whole. In that sense, any quotidian rendition of Hamlet is going to include many of the specific elements (“To be or not to be”) which percolate out of the widely-distributed canonical version. We’re never more than three or four interlocutors from the text.

That is broadly true even in non-literate traditions, as elite storytellers maintain canonical versions of some stories with great fidelity using meter, rhyme and both internal and external references. “Low” culture is more than a game of “Telephone” removed from canonical stories; it promotes its own sensibility that resonates with the broader cultural setting. By considering the evolving dynamics of everyday parlance, “low” culture, we may find windows into semantic guides for learning.

Boas later accuses Kroeber of “Epicureanism”, for wanting elegant stories about historical relations of cultures without insisting on solid evidence. But building a “systematic” understanding is not easy; it’s not even obvious what the endpoint of such an effort should look like.

I have for some time had Brian Boyd’s book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, but haven’t had time to really delve into it. It deals with similar issues, in particular he proposes that fiction as a form of art is a side-effect of various human cognitive adaptations. The missing element, I think, is the developmental aspect: How do children learn to create and engage with narratives around them? The shared environment of social learning creates a foundation for more extensive stories of all kinds – from fiction to science.