Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Today's reading: "Pictures Texts and Objects." by John Law and Michael Lynch

Science and Classification, Western and not.

In 1967, the anthropologist Ralph Bulmer published a study called "Why is the Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy Among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands." Bulmer's point, and the goal of much anthropology, has been to identify the reasons why classification differs from place to place, and more importantly how it reflects social and cultural organization. Bulmer, along with many others, such as Mary Douglas, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Edmund Leach all conducted research aimed at uncovering how classification is related to social structure. Bird watching is one of a huge array of sciences and 'knowledges' more generally, in which formal instructions are applied in practice. `What can we say about the relation of these field guides to 'our' Euro-american social structure?

Reading and Writing: Meaning vs. Use

One of the things this article highlights is the difference between two theories of reading. One theory presumes that all the meaning is contained within the text, with only the intelligent reader to decipher it. The other assumes that some kinds of texts are used for a purpose and that there is a dynamic relation between the reader, the writer, and the environment in which it is used.


Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas, Houghton Mifflin, 1963,

Hawks p.61 | Flying Hawks p.80 | Flying Ducks p.37 | Confusing Fall Warblers p.220

Sibley's Sibley Guide to Birds, Chanticleer Press, 2000.

Hawks p.112 | Warblers p.425-6 | Hummingbirds p.302


"What would you be missing if you did not experience the meaning of a word?"

To experience a word vs. to know its meaning. Is 'apprenticeship' necessary to understand what words mean? What is the difference between a skilled practitioner and the one who knows the dictionary meanings of words?

What does it mean to "get the name to stick"? Why does Linda have trouble knowing that these ducks are gadwalls?

  • - knowing the word.
  • - knowing why this bird requires this word
  • - comparing the bird to other birds of another species
  • - comparing the bird to another of the same species
  • - comparing it to a field guide
  • - comparing it to all possible birds
  • - comparing it to a bird from memory

A Literary Language Game

"...'experiencing the meaning of words' in a specific naturalistic domain requires apprenticeship to a social organization of reading and writing." p.319.

- situated practices of reading and writing. not just seeing, but observing, describing, redescribing and categorizing.

Field Guides:

  • Realism: what role the 'realistic' representation Perceptual accountability: classification through seeing (not dissecting)
  • Picture theory of representation: Birds are best pictured, not described, and that they correspond to real birds.
  • Strategic use of words: on images and beside images.

Schematic, Photographic, Dioramic

  • Schematic representation:
    • for comparison, for quick identification of distinguishing marks, gender and age distinction.
    • Perching vs. flying. deletion of clutter
    • no linear perspective (shading, chiaroscuro or vanishing point)
    • "a synchronic, quasi-experimental arrangement where variables of distance, depth, lighting, pose and background are held constant."
    • "It is designed to facilitate recognition and naming." not about realism, but about it's use. It is pedagogic and 'technical' not scientific
  • Photographic Representation:
    • Also shows several poses, but is less controlled, many different angles, poses, lighting etc.
    • Which details matter, and which don't in a photo?
  • Naturalistic Representation
    • Combination of the first two. More detail as to setting, but also schematically rendered. Some greater realism, but much less than photography.

Natural Deconstruction?

"revealing disruptions in the concrete practice of reading 'the book of nature."

Encountering frustrations, uncertainties and quandaries. Beginners assume they are at fault. More sophisticated birders know that the field guide cannot account for all aspects of watching birds.

  • MIssing the Mark
    • the point of making the disinguishing mark stand out also makes the identification of it more central.
  • Surplus Detail
    • essential vs. gratuitous details. photography is not simply what the eye sees. CDRoms, enature.com.
  • Dissillusionment
    • expecting too much, when the images are too rich. Normal birds turn out to be more boring than the ones in the book.
  • Ubiquitous Troubles
    • Troubles with any written text.
      bulk-- size and materiality of the book. depending on the activity of the user.
      place finding. the hermenuetic circle of bird and text.
      incompleteness. Field guides are all incomplete.

"We [are] interested in how members of an epistemic community 'attach' authoritative knowledge 'to nature'." p. 336

Parts of a bird,
	      Sibley's Guide

Parts of a Bird, from Sibley's Guide to Birds, 1st ed. © 2000

Christopher Kelty
Last modified: Mon Jan 27 18:08:08 CST 2003