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 pondered the limits (and sometimes the seemingly 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 cultural 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 mono-dimensional figures as flattenings of multi-dimensional frameworks.