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Durham University

Department of Anthropology: Writing Across Boundaries

Roy Wagner

In his piece 'Depersonalising the Digression', Roy Wagner provides an eloquent and thought-provoking reflection on the relationship between experience, thinking and writing.  In it, Wagner considers the way that in our internal encounters with experience and the thoughts that it gives rise to, writing features as a kind of digression with which we must always struggle.  The piece is reproduced as it was submitted, that is, as a mechanically-produced artefact. Readers might like to put these ideas in the wider context of Wagner's work by looking at An Anthropology Of The Subject: Holographic Worldview In New Guinea And Its Meaning And Significance For The World Of Anthropology [2001; University of California Press].


Roy Wagner is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in symbolic anthropology. He received a B.A. in Medieval History from Harvard University (1961), and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (1966). He conducted fieldwork among the Daribi of Karimui, in the Simbu Province of Papua New Guinea, as well as the Usen Barok of New Ireland. Wagner taught at Southern Illinois University and Northwestern University before accepting the chairmanship of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia, where he currently teaches. His book The Invention of Culture (1975; 1981) is considered a classic of ethnography and theory.

On his homepage at the University of Virginia he writes: 'Since the completion of my field research in New Ireland I have been interested in the objective basis of subjective phenomena like thought, imagery, representation, and symbolism. It is the difference between the objectivity of the event or encounter and the way it gets to be represented later in thought, reflection, and writing that turns real or pragmatic happening into an empirical copy of itself, into an "experience" of self and other. My interest in teaching anthropology to graduate students is to involve them and their interests as much as possible in the positive side of this, the pragmatic objectivity of cultural and conceptual phenomena. The "down side" of graduate study would have to do with making the difference between objectivity and its subjective copy as abstract, dry, and austere as possible, turning it into "anthrospeak." The brighter, or "up" side involves taking responsibility for the invention of culture, understanding if not collapsing the differences between reality and its representation. I join my colleagues in not insisting on a specific canon for how this is to be done.'