In response to: “The Recovery of Case” (Vol. 2, No. 3).


To the editors:1

My head was cleared after I read David Berlinski and Juan Uriagereka’s “The Recovery of Case” four times, outlined it, and thought about it for two months. Almost everything in modern linguistics clears your head and makes you see your own field more clearly. My field within anthropology is archaeology and, within that, the origins of novel kinds of Christianity.

From my early, surface reading of this tutorial essay, Levi-Strauss was an easy post to grasp when he was made to say what he mostly did say: humans notice that they are similar to each other using great universal principles, presumably like speaking languages. Thus, we see each other as sharing human nature because it is everywhere the same. But, we do this second. First, we see differences and they become more important than our acknowledged similarities.

With this familiar anchor and with my memory of an early course with the late Kenneth Hale on transformational grammar, the place of Universal Grammar became clearer to me.

James Deetz, arguably the most powerful mind in the founding of historical archaeology, used transformational grammar to find a way to describe universally the world of made things. He did this in “Invitation to Archaeology.”2 Henry Glassie did the same in his rather more successful Folk Housing in Middle Virginia.3 In neither case did either discover the underlying principles of making and using things that were supposed to fulfill the promise of a universal grammar for things. But worse, the effort was not recognized as serious because archaeologists were, and remain, focused on the order of things, not on the rules for making them. The arrow of study went from mind/brain, to hand, to object, not from objects as similar everywhere, to hands controlled by a mind that worked and thought like all minds, always. So, Deetz and Glassie got nowhere with this effort, even though each was admired as a scholar and loved as teachers by two or three generations of archaeologists and folklorists.

Which leads me to ask: can I understand the basis for universal grammar through the basic, universal, three million year old hominid characteristic of making things. Think of it. We have a date for when the ability to make things begins. We know what the objects look like. We know they were, and remain, essential to us. We know the ability became more and more prominent. We know that things are as important as language and as indispensable. We even know that language and things cannot exist without each other currently, although it is likely that making things predates language, possibly by a very long time. We sometimes say you can talk and that that is our most human of qualities. But making things is not only important and inevitable, but also it is likely that thinking and making become mutually dependent.

I want to lead now to archaeology and see through it if we can say anything about universality. Are we required to ask if a universal grammar underlies the universal ability and need to make? The only reason to ask the question that comes from “The Recovery of Case” is a way to discover the universal humanity in humanity. I think the answer is no. I get to the answer this way. Consider archaeology today. Since the end of World War II, and the founding of fifty or so new nations since then, archaeology has become a worldwide practice. And, a successful one. It has been used to dig in the ground productively, date with C14 and KA radiometric techniques, map ruins universally, discover ancestors, lost antecedent cities, sacred origin spots, early humanity, a better calendar, ancient kin ties, trade routes uniting unlinkable places, lost, unreadable languages, and, in short, equivalent histories for everybody who was previously disfranchised and lacking rootedness in the past.

So, does this lead to a quest for how we make things? No. What does the success of archaeology lead us to: a universal grammar or the universal ability to remember? It has led to a quest for why we need to remember, and how memory works. We know that we need to remember, which is a little bit like knowing that we need to talk. But how did memory form, how does it work, how and why does rational forgetting happen? These are questions we do not have the answers to. Is this similar to the quest for the existence of a universal grammar? Yes, but it does not go through things. There is unlikely to be a universal grammar for making things, despite a commonality of raw materials across the globe. But, there is likely a vehicle for understanding how we use them to tell ourselves why we make and made them, when the making began, and how their perceived friendliness to us gives access to what is universal: thingness as a jog to the recovery of memory. That is human, universal, and probably grammatical. It is with memory, common recently to all of us, that we may have insight into some genetic change which leads to abstract symbolic processing that in turn relates to grammar and memory.4

Let me get rid of some clutter. I cite archaeology here as both metaphor and as professional practice. Metaphor allows me to say that humans have made things for at least three million years. We evolved biologically through their use and cannot not make things, anymore than we cannot not speak. They are so much ourselves that they are a vehicle for seeing each other’s common humanity, otherwise we would neither copy nor collect each other’s things. That is universal and has been for a very long time.

Archaeology as a five hundred year old profession is about establishing rational, challengeable, pasts. It has succeeded well, and particularly brilliantly, in the last seventy five years, years of nation building at an unparalleled pace. The common purpose shared with linguists here is: why does this happen, is there something humanly universal that allows, or even makes, humans use things buried in the ground to make them feel more stable, or more the equal of others, already better established? The answer is: memory. Does one build it, or free it up? The answer to that question is the analogue to the question how does a universal grammar work? Oddly, and not happily, the answer is that we don’t know yet how memory is built and rebuilt.

As a teaser to where I want to go in this essay, we do know that the lobe where memory is housed reached its present size and function about one hundred and fifty thousand years ago or when fully modern humans appeared.

No one now would look at the world of things past (archaeology) or present (modern material culture studies and heritage studies), and entertain an effort to link them through an analogue to the rules of a universal grammar. Nor would any archaeologist see the need to, whether pointed out or not. Understanding the world of things is used to build a world inferred and essential: an unseen but worthy past world, as well as behaviors hidden from our eyes like the waste revealed through modern garbage analysis. No one asks to understand the underlying rules for making things. Instead, people want to know how memory works and how discard works, which we can say, imaginatively, is forgetting. How does that work?

Therefore, are linguists looking at the wrong things, i.e. words as opposed to what words do? I don’t know. But I do know that a similarly old hominid pattern, which is making things and a similarly universal one, has gone in a different direction, and with great success. However, that success leads to the same place modern linguistics is in. If one asks about universal grammar, we in archaeology ask how memory and forgetting work. And we don’t know the answers to those questions, either. I do not know how to bridge a quest for universal grammar with the code for remembering and forgetting. However, it is likely to be through the operation of the brain and thus through physiology and genetics.

David Berlinski and (my friend and colleague at Maryland) Juan Uriagereka, have written a tutorial about several of the issues every thoughtful scholar in the social sciences wants to know, and that is one of the values of the essay. At one point, they remind us:

Nothing much is left of the ancient Aristotelian categories either [like nouns and verbs]. A similar movement has taken place in biology as evolutionary biologists have come to realize that, like the parts of speech in a generative grammar, species are nothing more than ever-shifting sets of features.

Could this be true for memory and forgetting? I am asking this for a self-interested purpose that concerns belief. Over my fifty years in the profession, I have been interested in Mormons, Shakers, African American churches in North America, Caribbean Christianity, Ancient Mesopotamian religion, and early Christianity. Given the point of the Berlinski and Uriagereka essay, which is universal grammar, the citation of Levi-Strauss and of evolutionary biologists, I want to know if we are looking at one religion with the rules for surface variation, or at many different religions whose members see themselves as different, more than they see themselves as united by a common hope for humanity and a capacity to transcend this world.

At one level, the question is: how does the division and subdivision of Christianity work? Are there principles to it that supervise the divisions? Does it maintain a core? Behind this historical question is the deeper: where does the belief in the imaginary come from, because that is easy enough to see in beliefs themselves, but it is also behind the quest for universal grammar, memory and forgetting, and the story in Berlinski’s and Uriagereka’s essay: “Deep down, case is compelling because linguistics has become a part of the Galilean undertaking, a way of explaining what is visible by an appeal to what is not.” I will add: or, might never be.

The details of any version of Christian churches are going to differ. Mormonism was founded by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1830s in upstate New York, became famous in the Intermountain West, and is the biggest surviving religion from the Second Great Awakening. Shakerism came to North America in the 1790s, to New England and New York under the same conditions under which Mormonism blossomed before the Civil War, and then gradually died out. Both were American socialist utopias. Afro-Christianity, both Catholic in the Caribbean and Brazil, and Protestant in North America are New World creations like Mormonism and Shakerism. Made by Africans and Europeans, the North American black church is Christian but with much African structure. Afro-Catholicism is, probably, mostly African on the surface, as well as in structure. Regarding Ancient Mesopotamia, it is probably enough to say that the dying god myth informs Christ’s Passion and Resurrection as described in the Gospels.

The point of this listing is to look at trance, rebirth, conversion, redemption, glossolalia, ecstasy, and being transported by visions and revelations to the imagined. This is the world that is imaginary, that cannot be there, but is imagined to be there.

The common core of all this is the imaginary world to be reached through worldly means. What allows for this universal?

What allows for it is best called up by Terry Eagleton when he talks about the use of language.5 He says that behind talking is the essential hope of being understood. We can speak successfully because we live in a world of humans who were born to listen, with the hope of understanding one another. We hope to be understood when we talk and the listener greets us with reciprocal hope.

We have arrived at the location of universal grammar, the capacity to make and use things, the capacity to believe in the imaginary, and to approach it. Where does this capacity live? We have to find it because it generates language, things, belief, both secular and divine. We assume the locus is empirical. We assume it allows for many arbitrary combinations of symbols and meanings, and their decoupling as well.

This is where my competence ends and the use of DNA analysis picks up so that we can see how the brain and genetics enable learning and forgetting.

I end with invoking my own experience as an anthropologist. Our question is: what makes us human? That means: how do we learn to speak; how do we make things; how do we build and enter imaginary worlds? The next step in dealing with answers to the questions is with brain imaging, DNA analyses of our genetic lines, and good, general theory. This is what any good department of anthropology should be doing.

Mark Leone

Mark Leone is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.

  1. I am grateful to my colleague Sean S. Downey for reading this paper carefully and offering many sound ways to improve it. 
  2. James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology (Garden City, NY: Natural History Press, 1967). 
  3. Henry Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1975). 
  4. Sean Downey, email correspondence. 
  5. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (New York/London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990).