Sign Systems Studies

Volume 34, Issue 2, 2006

Between Semiotics and Anthropology

Irene Portis-Winner
Pages 339-355

Eric Wolf
A semiotic exploration of power

This paper discusses Eric Wolf’s (1923–1999) analysis of power in his last monograph, Anthropology (Wolf 1964) and last book Envisioning Power (Wolf 1999). In Anthropology, Wolf (1964: 96) wrote that the “anthropological point of vantage is that of a world culture, struggling to be born.” What is worth studying is human experience in all its variability and complexity. His aim was to set the framework bridging the humanities with anthropology. He never gave up this quest, only expanding it. In the new introduction to his 1964 monograph, thirty years later, he commented that such a synthesis had not occurred. Rather there were growing schisms in the field. In the preface to Envisioning Power, he held that human sciences were unable or unwilling to come to grips with how cultural configurations intertwine with considerations of power. In 1990 he had addressed the American Anthropological Society, holding that anthropologists favored a view of culture without power, while other social sciences have advanced a concept of ideology without culture. He wrote that his aim in his last book was to explore the connection of ideas and power observed in streams of behavior and recorded texts. Since minds interpose a selective screen between the organism and environment, ideas have content and functions that help bring people together or divide them. While ideas compose the entire range of mental constructs, Wolf understands ideology as configurations or unified schemes to underwrite or manifest power. Power is, according to Wolf, an aspect of all relations among people. Within this framework Wolf analyzes three cases, the Kwakiutl, the Aztecs, and Nazi Germany. The comparisons are very revealing, both the wide differences and similarities in power configurations and in the role of imagination.

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