Chris Ball on his book, Exchanging Words

Meghanne Barker: This book moves, part by part, from within the park to outside of it, until we end up in France. How did you decide to organize it this way, rather than according to some of the main terms of inquiry, such as exchange and ritual? It seems that this tactic was designed, in some ways, to counter narratives of indigenous groups perpetually repeating or risking assimilation or annihilation. But were there aspects of your fieldwork at the Park that were then obscured by this framing – for example, giving more attention to the role of visitors from the outside?

Chris Ball: First of all, many thanks for reading the book and posing such thoughtful questions!

I committed to the framing of an ethnographic narrative about how Wauja people of Brazil move from inside the Xingu Park to outside early on in my fieldwork. Although the chapter on the Atujuwa mask dance that Wauja performers debuted in France in July, 2015 is the subject of the book’s last chapter, the event happened relatively soon after I began working with the Wauja. I was invited to accompany the troupe on their journey abroad and in doing so I learned so much about Wauja people’s initiatives to engage with outsiders. I also returned to the village with many questions about how such encounters work out. From then on, I became increasingly interested in scalar study of the pragmatic means through which Wauja outreach to alters was accomplished and understood from their perspective. That meant looking locally at political discourse, communication with spirits, and out to regional exchange rituals with other Xinguans, and meetings with foreign and Brazilian NGO and government representatives. This perspective helped me to locate classical anthropological topics such as ritual and exchange as they emerged in relations of development that variously purported to target healthcare, material culture, environmental protection, and spirituality. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha had a great influence on my research by encouraging cultural analysis of how Amazonian indigenous people do development. While I ended up paying less attention to the role of visitors from the outside, the upshot was to reverse the perspective of how Euro-Americans and/or non-indigenous Brazilians encounter Amazonians by following the movements and itineraries of Wauja people as Amazonians who engage outsiders.

Meghanne Barker: In the introduction, you promise that this book will bridge the gap between two approaches to studying Amazonia, one of which uses a structuralism modeled after Saussurian semiology, the other of which adopts Peircian semiotics to focus more on everyday discourse. This seems like an ambitious task! At what point in your research or writing did you realize that this was what your project was doing? What made it seem possible, or desirable, or necessary, for you to do this?

Chris Ball: It is a tall order, and I am sure there are many ways that I fell short in this book. Again, I was influenced and encouraged by my teachers in this regard, primarily by Michael Silverstein and Sue Gal in the application of Peircean semiotics to communication, and by the wonderful opportunities I had to learn from scholars such as Carlos Fausto and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in Chicago and in Rio de Janeiro. They brought a range of perspectives to the table to be sure, but I inherited a lasting engagement with Levi-Straussian structuralism and Amazonianist (post)structuralism from these anthropologists. In addition, my training in structural linguistics at Chicago by Jerry Sadock and Amy Dahlstrom, among others such as Bruna Franchetto, prepared and required me to engage with grammatical systems in the tradition of Sapir, Bloomfield, and Saussure. I guess the ingredients were all in the mix before I left for the field, and I can see in retrospect how much the fingerprints of my teachers are left on the book. I should also say that I still believe that one of the main tasks of linguistic anthropology at least since Roman Jakobson has been to unite elements of Saussurean semiology and Peircean semiotics as they illuminate fundamental properties of language structure and function. The synthesis is ongoing, but what makes it possible, desirable, and necessary is the complementarity of studying langue as a social fact on the one hand, and parole as a site of sociocultural (re) production and transformation. This book is one entry in the collective research project into that dialectic.

Meghanne Barker: Beyond scholarly work on ritual, language, exchange, or indigenous groups in Brazil, is there another scholarly conversation into which you see this book offering an intervention that might not be obvious, immediately? If so, can you tell these readers why they should read your book?

Chris Ball: I think the outreach that the book attempts, beyond the audiences you mentioned, is to scholars and practitioners of development. I make a largely culturalist argument that ritual, discourse, and exchange influence how people from the Xingu region of Brazil engage in development projects. Understanding their cultural approaches to ritual, to trade, and to political discourse in their own communities sheds light on how and why development projects may succeed or fail. Indeed, we should even ask if the people involved define communicative success and failure in anything like the same terms. The point of view brought by linguistic anthropology can hopefully say something applicable to the realization of development in a variety of contexts.

Meghanne Barker: It is common for authors to mention their indebtedness to their interlocutors in the acknowledgments section of the book, yet you do so as your conclusion. Then you break somewhat with conventional ethnography and appeal to the reader, whom you interpellate as a probable anthropologist, to accept the status of indebtedness as requiring sustained engagement. What provoked you to conclude in such a way, with such an appeal?

Chris Ball: One of the points of my book is that Wauja people often work to sustain indebtedness and asymmetry in their exchange relations with outsiders. This leads to confusion in intercultural encounters when NGO representatives laud the successful conclusion of projects, touting the success of debts paid.  Meanwhile Wauja people may see in the same instance an undesirable foreclosure of future social relations. I tried to make that point in the body of the book, and in the conclusion, I hoped to return to the question that your first question indicated might be foreclosed by my approach to Wauja outreach; attention to the role of visitors from the outside. What I wanted to suggest, perhaps to overcome at least momentarily the act of description in the service of engagement, is how anyone who visits the Wauja from the outside, myself and my readers –you included—  is indebted to them. We should take indebtedness not as a negative however, instead we might approach it the way Wauja often do, as a positive corollary of continued relationships, of sustained engagement signaled in the promise of a return.

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