Book Club Discussion Transcript: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

We hope you had a good time discussing Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes with your book club—or had a good time reading it on your own and thinking about it!

Below the cut is the transcript for our own Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes discussion. Maybe you’ll agree with our opinions, or maybe you’ll think we got it all wrong. Either way, we’d love to hear from you in the comments if you found our discussion interesting!

In the preface, Everett states, “These are my lessons. Someone else would no doubt have learned other lessons. Future researchers will have their own stories to tell. In the end, we just do the best we can to talk straight and clear.” In non-fiction, and especially in scientific papers, the personal point of view is often obscured or even perhaps obliterated. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, in contrast, grounds all the linguistic science we’re contemplating in Everett’s own personal experiences that caused him to reach these scientific conclusions. What advantages does this emphasis of the 1st person bring to a scientific discussion? What disadvantages do you see? Are there particular areas of the sciences that you feel are more appropriate for using this personal point of view?

Colleen: I thought that was pretty astute of him, to call himself out. Because I think it varies some… well, I think personal bias plays a part in everything. I think it’s maybe less relevant if you’re doing, like, chemistry? Than if you’re doing linguistics or sociology or similar. With social sciences and things, it gets to a point where I think it’s maybe impossible to look at things entirely objectively. I mean, I haven’t known a lot about linguistics in the past, so I was convinced by a lot of the points he made about how this is so rooted in your own culture and experience. So, first off, I just appreciated that he acknowledged that and did set that expectation—that’s the wrong word, but—

Ariana: It kind of gave you this corollary or—or a frame for the narrative that he was going to tell you, and how he was going to approach the material, too. And I agree that, by and large, the hard sciences probably don’t need to be so concerned with “framing” the work—but I still think there are times when the hard sciences do have a social impact or are directed by a culture? I’m just thinking—I don’t know how apt this is, but you read that book that was about gender…?

C: Delusions of Gender.

A: Delusions of Gender. I don’t know—you didn’t really tell me much about the specifics of the various experiments she was breaking down, but I imagine there were some ways in which the way that they came at the question with a certain expectation probably…

C: Yeah, extremely apropos. She was talking about an experiment where they were working with infants, like, really really really new babies. And, I don’t remember exactly what the study was, but they were finding distinct gender differences, and said, see, this is hardwired into our brains, because even these babies who were a month old did these things. And she looked back at it and she said, “You told the researcher which gender they were addressing.”

A: Ohhhhh.

C: And they looked at that, and they found that our own—I mean, we grew up in the world with all the biases about gender present, and even when we’re trying our best, we can’t escape them. And they found that the researchers absolutely approached these infants differently, when they believed they knew the gender of the babies they were working with.

A: Okay.

C: So… yes.

A: [laughter] Yeah. I mean, again, with the really hard sciences—like chemistry, you mentioned—it’s harder? But it’s like—

C: There can be a thing where you think you know the result, or you hope to get a certain result, and that can skew you.

A: And also I think sometimes the purpose to which you are expecting to put the results of the experiment can sometimes—not necessarily influence the experiment itself, but it can influence how it’s presented and how it’s read, too.

C: Yeah.

A: So, I agree. I thought he was really wise to explain that right up front. I think it set a good tone for how I read the entire book, because—actually, it reminds me a little bit of The Fact of a Body. We talked about how she imagined scenarios, and how normally with true crime, you and I don’t really like that. But, in that case, it was appropriate because it was so personal to her experience. And so, I felt like Everett did a really good job of showing, like, this is my particular experience. These were the situations I was in that prompted me to get this information.

C: Yeah. And in a book about situations you’re in prompting the way you express and intake information… yeah, that makes a lot of sense! So, yeah, I think the advantage of the emphasis of the first person is honestly a better grasp on what you’re studying. It is so difficult to remove bias from things like linguistics, like a lot of social sciences—even in approaching trials in court, it is really really really hard to remove your own biases from what you’re talking about. So, acknowledging it, recognizing it, I think that’s the best way you can get there.

A: I agree. As far as disadvantages…

C: I don’t think he necessarily did this, but I think you’ve got to watch for the risk of not trying to be unbiased, which I think you should try to do. Like, you should be aware of what your biases are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and fight them.

A: I think that’s fair to say. I think he—from my perspective, it seems like he was doing pretty well at identifying—”okay, well, I was being biased here, so I tried to correct it, or—”

C: You know, “Here is me, admitting that and recognizing it, maybe in hindsight, but I learned—”

A: Yeah, I appreciated that the book showed him learning and changing over time.

When explaining how Pirahãs have a more fluid understanding of selfhood, Everett says, “So what does it mean to say that something or someone is the same this instant as they were a minute ago? What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was a toddler? None of my cells are the same. Few if any of my thoughts are. To the Pirahãs, people are not the same in each phase of their lives” (Ch. 7). Consider your own life. Are there specific points at which you felt you became someone new? Or do you see your life as a steady continuum with no great interruptions? Explain your reply.

C: So I think that fluid understanding of selfhood is so interesting, and… I think it’s pretty cool!

A: [laughter]

C: I think we could maybe benefit from leaning a little more in that direction ourselves as a culture. I think that might help that sort of Tumblr culture of callouts and receipts. Someone who is actively super nasty—like, I do want to know that, but if you’re like, yeah, seven years ago they said this, and all of their current behavior shows different things, like, well. I’m open to the concept of change. So, yeah, are there specific points… I don’t recall any points in my life where I was just like, this was such an immediate revelation, everything changed in that moment…

A: Right.

C: I do think there are points which started significant change. I don’t think any of it was, like, a single moment I could pin down. I can talk about how there was a time in my senior year of high school in our AP Government class, and I think students came in from University of Washington and they wanted to talk about race, essentially. There might’ve been some other things in there. But that was the first time I had ever heard the concept that Black people aren’t racist, because racism isn’t just prejudice, it’s an institutional bias with a huge history of power imbalance and all of that. And at the time I was like, that’s… ridiculous—

A: [laughter]

C: —everyone can be racist about other races, and I was very not open to it. I’m pretty sure my friends and I were saying so to each other, if not to the poor student who was trying to teach this to idiot white high schoolers. And like, my high school being my high school, there were plenty of people of color in our class… so I’m sure they also loved hearing all of that—

A: Oh, I’m sure.

C: —I am so sorry, everyone. Yeah, and so that was the first time, and I was just like, okay, that’s ridiculous. And then I heard it again at college at a presentation prior to the first week of classes, and I’m like, …. hmm. ….. HUH. And by the third time this concept was introduced to me, I’m like, okay, yeah, I think I’m starting to get it now. And at this point it’s something that I just accept—I’m like, yeah, wow. So… yeah, Baby Colleen was kinda dumb, and kinda racist, and didn’t realize it! So yeah, that is a point, where I do look back at that and wish I knew this poor woman’s address, so I could be like, I’m so sorry, you did good work. It just… took a while, that’s on me.

A: Well, I’m sure that she knew that it was not going to be immediate.

C: You just walk into this classroom full of affluent white kids, and…

A: Yeah, I’m sure she understood that to a degree. I mean, because—because that’s the thing, sometimes when I’m trying to talk about certain concepts when people haven’t been exposed to them before, I don’t expect them to immediately just know all the lingo, and be like, OH YEAH!!!

C: And get it.

A: It’s like, no, you have to try and see it as like, okay, I’m starting the path for them of maybe being more open to this idea. And eventually, maybe years from now, they’ll fully understand it. But you have to start somewhere.

C: You do.

A: Yeah. And… I’m trying to think about specific points in my life. I feel like in hindsight I have sections of my life—

C: Never was there a moment where in the moment I was like, this is huge, this is— And not on a major life-changing scale, but there’ve been points where I’m like, this is an incredible piece of information, I’m certainly going to think about this, but it’s never…

A: Yeah.

C: It’s all in hindsight, when you look back, usually.

A: Yeah, I agree, which is why it kind of interests me, because it sounds like the most common time when Pirahãs change their name is when they encounter a spirit? He mentioned that, like, every time they see a spirit, then that’s a—he didn’t say “opportunity” to change their name, but it’s kind of something that usually happens around that time. So. I’m trying to think what even would be an equivalent for that, you know?

C: Yeah, so, let’s talk a little bit—I’m still struggling to wrap my head around what it means for a Pirahã to see a spirit.

A: Yeah.

C: Like, I get the dreams, because that’s not an imaginary place your mind goes, that’s just what happens when you’re asleep and that’s a part of life. Okay, get that. But that’s not the only time. There’s the bit where they woke the family up at the very beginning—

A: Yeah!

C: —and they were like, look, there’s a spirit across the river! And all of the Pirahãs were like, yeah, look! And Everett was like, … what the hell???

A: Well, I think that Everett—I finally got it kind of late in the book, when he was talking about how, for them… You know, our concept of a spirit is kind of an aberration, like, it’s not naturally part of the world, it’s something different. Whereas with the Pirahãs, it’s like, oh, there’s a panther. Like, that in itself can be a spirit. It’s kind of, like, naturally in the world around them?

C: How do they know when it’s a panther and when it’s both?

A: I don’t know. [laughter] But, it sounded like that was the best—

C: Because they would all be on the same page about it!

A: Yeah! I know!!!

C: It’s not like one person was just like, what if?, and everyone was just like, …yeah!!!

A: Yeah, sure!

C: And that’s not it, so—

A: And so I’m not sure—I think it was hard—like, what I got from that first example that he gave, like, he could not see it, even though he was trying to see it. I kind of felt like this is a topic where he’s like, I get it as much as I’m ever going to get it, but I can’t really explain it fully because I’m not a Pirahã. That was kind of—I felt like he was doing the best he could to translate a basically untranslatable concept for us.

C: Right.

A: And I felt like the best I got it was when it seemed like things from the natural world exist as spirits, which—I don’t really want to go Pocahontas

C: Oh god.

A: —the Pocahontas movie, but—yeah, I know it’s terrible!

C: A flawless piece of media—

A: Flawless!!!

C: —with no issues whatsoever.

A: But, if you want to think about, like—well, okay, don’t go that hard, but a little bit like the idea of certain things in the natural world having inherent… I don’t know, like—

C: Kind of like Shintoism.

A: Oh yeah, Shintoism does that. Yeah, I think…

C: … I’ve got the song stuck in my head now.

A: I’m sorry.

[laughter]

A: But kind of that basic idea. Shintoism is actually a much better example, thank you.

C: Let’s step away from Pocahontas, shall we?

A: I didn’t know how to get there without bringing it up!!! Oh god… I’m sorry.

C: That’s okay. There’s worse songs out there.

A: Yeah, but, having these small spirits in the natural world around you. Unlike how, in the Abrahamic religions we’re familiar with, it’s more like, oh, there’s one god, he’s awesome—

C: An omnipotent, omniscient—

A: Or even in Hinduism, it’s like, you have these very specific deities that have these specific roles. And I think Shintoism is really more just like, there’s a small spirit in all of these natural things. And so, I don’t know what in particular would prompt Pirahãs to say—

C: Oh, that’s a spirit.

A: That’s a spirit. But I think it’s tied into that concept somehow.

C: I think you’re probably right, but I also agree this is probably untranslatable.

A: Yeah. So, I agree with you that I would not be able to see a future transformation; I would only be able to see it looking back.

C: And the transformations take—I’m not sure I believe in transformations that just sort of… [snaps fingers]. [pause] Well—wait, now I’m kind of pulling back on that.

A: Okay.

C: I think usually a transformation is going to be at least somewhat gradual, as you sort of internalize a new concept or a new thought about yourself.

A: Mmhmm.

C: There’s a few things that might change. So, one would be the example of something super traumatic.

A: Yes.

C: And so, in that sense, I think I can point to like, okay, this happened and it changed everything, sort of coloring the stuff that came after. And again, even in the moment, you’re not going to know exactly what that’s gonna do—

A: How it’s changing you—

C: But that sort of thing does make a change I think.

A: I agree.

C: And then the other thing I’m wondering about is people who have a much more dramatic coming out than I did.

A: Ahhh, yeah.

C: Because a lot of—like, for me, it was sort of this awareness for a long time, I was like, yeah… I think I’m probably not straight…

A: [laughter]

C: I don’t even remember the moment at which I was like, yeah, that’s definitely correct!

A: [laughter]

C: It was just, you know, I was lucky in that it was not an issue, ever. A lot of people, that’s not their story, and they’ll go through a lot of just—Everett talks about, like, he remembers the point at which he finally admitted to himself, “I don’t believe in God anymore.”

A: Right.

C: And I think that is probably a similar thing for people who have struggled with their queerness. And they will probably have that moment where something happened, or like, finally their introspection takes them to the point where, like, alright.

A: I agree, it does depend on the person and circumstance.

C: Yeah, nothing exists outside of context of the entire rest of your life and everyone else’s life and also the whole world.

A: [laughter] Yeah.

When Everett is explaining the way in which understanding culture is necessary in understanding a language, he says, “If you learn to pronounce French vowels perfectly and come to completely understand and control the meaning of every French word, can you rightly claim to speak French? Would pronunciation and knowledge of words be enough to tell you the appropriate sentence to use in a particular social setting? Would this knowledge suffice to read Voltaire in the original like a French intellectual? The answer to these questions is no. Language is not only more than the sum of its parts (words and sounds and sentences)—it is by itself insufficient for full communication and understanding without knowledge of an enveloping culture” (Ch. 13). Are there realms in your life in which you are speaking a “different language,” despite using English words? What sets this “different language” apart from what your home region considers “standard English”? How or why did you learn this language in the first place?

A: So, I definitely immediately think of Tumblr as—

C: Mmhmm! For sure.

A: This is a language—

C: I’m using English—

A: But… [laughter]

C: Also some weird image language.

A: Yes.

C: And you know I’m so fascinated by memes and the way we have our weird little dialect in communication.

A: Mmhmm. Yeah, it’s very—memes and the internet are specific to their own selves, but then I think Tumblr pushes it even more, in a way that I’m not sure other social media websites do?

C: I’m so much more tuned into Tumblr than…

A: Yeah.

C: I don’t—communication on, like, Instagram is so different, and the same for Twitter.

A: I think there’s more overlap between Twitter and Tumblr—

C: Yeah. But I would have to know more about Twitter—Reddit is kind of the one where I wonder if they might have their own sort of dialect.

A: But yeah, I would not expect my mom to understand a lot of things that we say and—

C: Oh, yeah!

A: —and whatever on Tumblr. It’s—

C: Like, sometimes people are very self-aware of it. Sometimes I’ve seen the posts where people are like, what has happened to my sense of humor that this is what I’m laughing at?

A: [laughter]

C: Like, if I tried to show this to my parents, they’d just stare at me and ask if I needed to see a therapist. And I would be like, no, this is top tier humor, this is great stuff, keep bringing it!

A: [laughter] Yeah.

C: So definitely the ways that people have developed to communicate on the internet… I was just thinking about this the other day, also, in that I was just texting with my mom and thinking—I try to modify my texting language somewhat? To you, I text exactly how I feel I want to text. Sometimes I’m more inclined to put a period on the end, because you always do, weirdo—

[laughter]

A: I sometimes don’t! I use it artistically.

C: You do, you do. But on the whole, I feel like that is just how I think I would ideally text all the time. If I’m texting my aunt, then it’s full sentences, first off, drop those exclamation points a lot, and… it’s just a very different way to talk, because I don’t think she’s fluent in that dialect of communication.

A: Well, I actually—I think I modify for [Other Friend of Ours], because she’s not really on Tumblr. I’m just personally not certain how well she understands the way that you and I and Willa punctuate, in order to express what we’re trying to say. And so I modify it more towards, like, the way that I text my mom? I’m still more silly and I use more caps, stuff like that, but I do it less, because I’m not sure where she’s at, as far as how well she understands my different language.

C: There have been times where I’ve tried something, and then sort of wondered, I wonder if you get this the way I intended it. Like, the way that we drop the lowercase “u”—that sort of thing. I think I did that to [OFoO] a little bit ago, and I was like, …… I wonder how that went over! I should ask her!

A: [laughter] Like, it’s probably fine—

C: It’s probably fine. But she’s not on Tumblr in the same way that we are.

A: Yeah.

C: So, when I’m joking with her via text, it’s a different style. Honestly, a lot of it’s going back to older things, like the doge.

A: [laughter] Yeah. So, what sets this different language apart from what we’d consider Standard English?

C: I think it’s something that has been crafted to do better communication through the medium in which we’re using it. So, this is not something I would ever say out loud? A lot of it can’t be said out loud, as it’s just how you type a word.

A: Right.

C: And it does a better job communicating this.

A: I think it certainly does a better job communicating tone and expression, which I know because one time I was driving with my mom in the passenger seat, and you and I were trying to set up plans for the next day. And so, you had texted me a thing, and my mom read it out, just like, in a normal tone? And I was like, that doesn’t make any sense, so I had her hold it up for me, and I was like, no, no, you have to say it in all caps!

[laughter]

A: So that was kind of a hilarious moment for me, where she had no idea what—you had basically—I think we were talking about going to see Dog-oween [an annual Halloween event in my town where a bunch of people dress up their dogs in costumes and compete for bragging rights]. I had initially texted something like, we’ll see some great dogs! And you just texted back, DOGS.

[laughter]

A: And my mom was just like, what the—

C: Because she was going, why would you send a text just to say, “dogs.” And it’s like, no no no, that is a great response.

[laughter]

A: A totally normal response.

C: That’s… not translatable.

A: Also, one time my mom—I don’t know how this came up, but she was like, yeah, sometimes I’m not sure which one of you and your friends are talking, because you all kind of sound the same? Which, I was like, yeah… that’s fair.

C: Like when she’s listening to us?

A: Yeah, when you, me, and Willa are all hanging out together, sometimes—I think when she’s only half-listening, she’s not really sure. So she said this thing, and I was like, I can see that. Because we share certain vocab and mannerisms, because—

C: We spend so much time together and have so many overlapping interests.

A: Yeah. And you can definitely see, we sometimes will start adopting new vocab. Like, definitely with My Brother, My Brother and Me, we’ve adopted certain ways of talking and certain words that—

C: That’s a good good observation!

A: [laughter]—certain words that we use because we share this thing that we all really enjoy. So, in certain ways, it opens up more types of expression for our insular group. But if someone who is not into My Brother, My Brother and Me hears us talk, I don’t expect them to understand anything.

[We spend 3 minutes talking about MBMBAM language.]

A: And so, how or why did you learn this language in the first place?

C: These sorts of things, I feel like, aren’t languages you consciously set out to learn?

A: Okay.

C: I think these are the sorts of things you tend to pick up just—

A: Just through existing in the culture?

C: Yes.

A: And you won’t immediately recognize everything. But by a slow—

C: Yeah, it’s a sort of immersion. The reason why I initially wanted to go do study abroad in Mexico or somewhere in Latin America was, I just wanted to—you can’t really do a language, just studying out of a book. So, I think that kind of answers both how and why. You learn it because it’s a culture that you are trying to be part of, and it comes with that.

A: Yeah, the language is necessary to belong to the culture.

C: Like, you can still enjoy Tumblr, I think, without having this in-depth understanding of all these memes and in-jokes and weirdnesses. But, I feel like I get so much more—so, recently, there was a joke a lot of people were posting, like, well, April is almost over, so you know what that means. And then they post a picture of a square of ramen. Are you familiar with that one?

A: I am not!

C: So the first time I saw that, I was like, the hell??? And then, because I was curious about it, I think I was more attentive to seeing other things pop up, until I finally placed it.

A: Uh huh???

C: This is great. So there’s a… okay, I apologize to all you 90’s kids, I don’t know the difference between Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC. Umm—

A: Well, there’s “It’s Gonna Be Me”?

C: Yeah! That’s it! Justin… Timberlake—

A: Yes.

C: —sings that, and his hair is the same color, it looks very much—

A: OH!!! [laughter]

C: —like a package of ramen. So, Tumblr managed to condense this down into just a picture of a square of ramen noodles. And I get all of that ridiculousness from that!

A: Oh my god, so much, packed into an image!

C: ‘Cause he’s not even saying “it’s gonna be may” in the song!

A: I know! So, this is so interesting to me, though, because when I was doing my medieval Japanese lit course in college—

C: As you do.

A: Y’know. It was really great, I read half of The Tale of Genji. So, what we did for the first part of the class in which we were doing the traditional poetry—of course, you are not getting so much of it once it’s translated into English, but what can you do. So, one of the really fascinating things about medieval Japanese poetry is that each word has this set of associations, dozens of associations, which you have to know in order to fully appreciate it while reading it, or to write it. You had to know all of these.

C: Wow. So you had to be so educated.

A: Very educated.

C: And in a very specific way.

A: Yes! It’s so interesting. And my professor was like, you understand the concept. You’ll never get them all. Just read it and we’ll talk about it. But I was blown away by this concept, that you have to know just this spiderweb of associations, and like, oh, this word is connected to autumn, so you can only use it in autumn poetry. Like… the fuck?

C: That’s fucking wild. And yeah, I do think the sort of meme association is clearly—

A: It does reach levels—

C: Because when I see that picture of the ramen or I see that silhouette of Obama’s eyes tinted red, there’s a layer of understanding there—

A: —that you, if I was going to try to explain certain things to a normal human, I would have to be like, okay. We’ll start back here with this meme, then we’ll talk about this meme, and then these memes met up to make this meme, but then we also have to pull this one in. It’s like—

C: Right, it’s like trying to explain the ramen thing. You can’t just be like, it means that it’s early May.

A: You know! And it’s like, fortunately I was halfway there, because I just saw the “It’s Gonna Be May” post yesterday [on April 30th]—somebody was like, got it in just under the wire!!! It was, like, 30 minutes ’til midnight. [laughter] Good job!

C: One other thing this made me think about is, I saw a bit of—I think it was spoken word, of a woman talking about how she was trilingual, because all three languages were technically English—

A: Okay.

C: But she has this very polished, college English sort of thing. She also has—her parents were, I think, Jamaican? So she’s got this sort of accented slang with that. And then also she has—she’s Black, and so there’s the approach and slang in speaking with other Black people. And you know, it’s all English, but you don’t even have to see me to know, if you heard me trying to fit in, that I don’t belong there.

A: Right.

C: And it was a really interesting piece, and it stuck with me really well. It’s like, yeah, those are all technically English, but it is really three different means of communication with three specific areas in which you use them.

A: Yeah, and that was—because I was recently doing the stuff where I was trying to design a dialect for my book, based loosely on Scottish English.

C: Right.

A: And I sat there for hours with Wikipedia and all these different dictionaries, trying to figure out, like, okay, what is a standard way to conjugate these verbs? How do you—because it’s standardized! It is its own separate language. It has its own vocabulary, its own way of conjugating verbs, like, all this stuff that I had to sit there and try to learn in the loosest possible sense. Like, I could not tell you—I would have to sit down and be like, let me pull up my dictionary in order to come up with a Scottish English sentence. I don’t speak that language at all, and so it was very hard for me—every time I was like, well I think it would be this… but I’ve gotta go check that dictionary, because I don’t know at all.

C: Like, you understand it when you see it.

A: Yes.

C: But you can’t reproduce it yourself.

A: Mmhmm. So that’s why I phrased this question in a particular way, because there are so many different standard English languages. And what we speak here in the Pacific Northwest is a pretty bland version of English, I would say? Because all the American newscasters want to talk like us, because we have no accent at all.

C: Yeah, we have this bland Pacific Northwest accent, and people from the South are like, why can’t you… talk like a human?

[laughter]

As Everett explains the two major systems of orientation in languages, he says, “The Pirahãs lack a body-oriented system and only have the nonambiguous, externally anchored system… So the Pirahãs need to think more explicitly and consistently about their location in the world than we do. This in turn means that the Pirahãs’ language forces them to think differently about the world” (Ch. 14). Thinking over your past experiences, particularly when traveling or living in an area unfamiliar to you, have you ever felt “out of place” and unable to fully orient yourself to your new surroundings? If so, in what ways did you attempt to reorient yourself, and did these methods work? If not, why do you think that is, considering your own personal methods of self-orientation?

A: So, this was actually something from when I lived in Matera [in Italy] for a year, and still, when I go back to visit, I feel very disoriented in a certain respect. Because I could orient myself in relation to landmarks in the city, but I have no sense of north, south, east, or west. Whereas here, because it is easy for me to tell—like, Puget Sound that way, mountains that way, Canada that way, Seattle that way. I have a really strong sense of the cardinal directions.

C: I can’t do that so well a little east of Seattle, where I’m unfamiliar with the area. Like, if you throw me down in Bellevue…

A: Yeah, I don’t go on the east side a lot, so maybe that could contribute also. But whenever I’m in the Puget Sound area here, I always feel very oriented externally. Whereas, in Matera, I feel like I’m always… it’s me in relation to landmarks, basically. I have no greater sense of orientation beyond the older part of the city. That’s it. And it was this odd sense of me feeling like I didn’t know where I was, and I felt very out of place, because it was a very difficult year for me. And it was such a small thing, but it contributed to this general feeling of not really knowing what I should be doing or really why I was there sometimes.

C: Yeah, so, to this day, I couldn’t tell you which way was north if you slapped me down on the island where I worked in the Caribbean. And we both know that I am not the greatest at orienting myself and directions. So, that’s interesting, because the island was small enough that I didn’t feel out of place? But also, I was going to a very limited number of places, and it wasn’t really a thing. I do wonder if that might have something to do with when you throw people down on a scuba dive in a site they are not familiar with. Because, if you just throw—like, I’m very comfortable underwater, obviously, I trust my skill, I trust I know what I’m doing. But when you throw me out in a site where I have never been before and a place I’m unfamiliar with, it’s—there’s another level there, in that it can be dangerous to lose your orientation, for obvious reasons. And there’s a few sites around here, and all the sites around that island in the Caribbean that I know so well—you could just throw me down in the night, like, I can’t see but I know exactly where I am and I’m very comfortable here.

A: Okay.

C: And a lot of divers don’t like to do night dives, even on their own turf—and I don’t think that’s necessarily because of disorientation, but I think that’s a big part of it. I’ve heard that some people even lose a sense of which way is up. … I don’t get that, because you just look at which way your bubbles go.

A: [laughter] Well, I think some people are not as calm in the water, and so it can be hard to use relatively small external indicators like that when you’re fighting a larger sense of feeling lost.

C: That makes a lot of sense.

A: So, do you feel that your disconnection from cardinal directions didn’t really disorient you at all while you were in the Caribbean?

C: I didn’t think so? I also have always—I’ve never been one of those people who apparently just know which way is north? I have always been bad at directions. It took me, I think, longer than the average person to even be able to orient myself here at home.

A: My sister still can’t. [laughter] My dad was trying to give her directions on the phone once, and he was like, now walk north! And she was like, WHICH WAY’S NORTH??? [laughter]

C: Okay, so, I can—if you ask me which is the east or the west side of the street, I can do that. So I don’t know… Because I do get turned around fairly easily, like, coming out of the changing room at Target and I thought we were supposed to go that way, and you were like, … no, it’s this way.

[laughter]

C: And I wonder if just having accepted that about myself makes it less disorienting when I lose those external orientors. It does make me a lot more cautious, overall. Like, I have not travelled on my own.

A: Okay.

C: And I feel that I’ve always travelled with someone else who could handle the bulk of the navigation—you or my parents. So I am interested now to wonder, if I did just go off on my own somewhere interesting… Yeah, even when I travelled on my own down to Mexico, someone else had planned all the arrivals at the airport and the taxis and all that.

A: Yeah… because I usually pride myself on having a fairly decent sense of direction, but man, when I was in Paris, I got so fucking lost? [laughter] That city hated me! I got very lost at least twice, and I was like, WHERE AM I. I had my little map that was really detailed and I had no clue.

C: That’s so interesting! Because I’ve never had that experience—like, me with a map, totally unsure of what’s going on.

A: Because the problem was, like—this is a problem in a lot of European cities. They don’t have street signs, or they’re placed randomly, like, up high on the walls, so you don’t really know where to look? And then you’re not sure, like, does it only apply to this side of the street and not the other side?

C: Okay, that is interesting, because you have a sense of direction—

A: Well, part of it—I know the first time in Paris it was getting dark, and I did not want to look like I did not know where I was. So I would walk for longer than I necessarily should have? Like, if I had been completely calm, I would have checked the map much more frequently. But I was trying to look like I knew what I was doing, which is a good thing when you’re traveling by yourself as a woman—and so I ended up getting more lost because of my unwillingness to hold the map in front of my face as I was walking. It was… I learned a lesson from that, but still, looking back, I’m like, well I understand why I was doing that, because I was like… 19? And I was walking around in this foreign space that was not heavily populated with people.

As Everett explains whistle speech, hum speech, and yell speech in Pirahã, he says, “These channels show how culture can influence language. If I didn’t know about the channels of discourse, I would not know the culturally appropriate way to communicate the different types of information that each of these channels is used for” (Ch. 11). Although English may not have such obvious distinctions between channels of discourse as Pirahã, consider the different mediums we use to speak English with each other—aurally, via email, via text, musically, poetically, etc. Would you consider these different “channels of discourse”? Explain your answer.

C: Interesting. So, there’s different ways I communicate. And for each of those mediums, is there information that is… better?

A: Yeah, information that is reserved for—

C: Like, are there things that I would only tell you in text and not in person?

A: Yeah.

C: And I’m not… I think some of it depends on who you are, like, some people find it easier to have conversations, and people talk about how it’s easier to have heavy discussions in the car, sometimes, because you don’t have to look at each other?

A: Huh!

C: Because the driver’s focused on the road, and so the passenger then is free to also look out the window. And when you’re discussing things that are really weighty, then—because there’s a sort of gravity with eye contact that, especially when you’re already uncomfortable, it makes things—even with someone who I trust completely and am close with, sometimes there’s certain things that are just hard to say. I don’t know… that’s also, in itself, not a channel. But that can translate to—like, because I know I’m bad with serious discussions, y’know, sort of sappy declarations of friendship and here’s how much I care about you—

A: Sentiment?

C: That’s the word! So bad at it, I forgot the word for it.

[laughter]

C: I’m bad at saying these kinds of things, that’s not my love language? But it’s that kind of thing where I don’t know, if I said it out loud, if I would be able to say it as sincerely as I mean it.

A: Mmhmm. I can see that. I think a lot of people are not that comfortable. Especially in our American culture, it’s difficult—especially here in the Northwest, where I think we are very sarcastic all the time, and we do have a certain distance we maintain with other people. Like, I have this experience in Wisconsin—not to say that people in Wisconsin can’t be sarcastic, obviously—but… it’s easier to talk to strangers in Wisconsin than it is here, just in my general interactions with other people. Which for the Northwest isn’t necessarily something bad, no judgment about either place and it’s people. We just convey information differently. But at the same time, I think also your personality affects how you’re comfortable speaking in a lot of ways, so it really is a combination of place and personal comfort.

C: Yeah.

A: As far as whether any of this qualifies as a channel of discourse, in the way that Pirahã has channels of discourse, I lean towards no, because I don’t think you’re unable to talk about—like, none of these are inappropriate to address the subject. Sometimes it might be a little better to use this other medium, or more appropriate for this relationship that you have, or the information you’re trying to convey, but you don’t have to—

C: Like love poetry, essentially—if you’re trying to say something super sweet to your significant other… like, poetry is maybe more appropriate, but you can also be like, honey… I just wanted to tell you… It might be a little strange, but it’s not—also, for some people I think that’s just, I think that’s who they are. Whoever those people are.

[laughter]

A: So, yeah, I would say in English, we do not have channels of discourse. I think we have preferences of discourse, if you want to call it that—

C: And I don’t know that it’s intrinsic to the language and the culture. I think it’s more intrinsic to individuals and their own preferences.

A: Yeah, that was—when Everett was talking about channels of discourse, I was like, that’s so… crazy, because also he was talking about how they just interchanged the consonants?

C: Yeah!

A: I was like, ARE YOU SERIOUS???

C: Like, how did he even figure that out??? Because it’s clearly something that is so obvious to the Pirahãs that when he’s like, what’s the difference? And they’re like, what are you talking about? It’s the same.

A: It’s the same thing!

C: And it’s something so integral to them that they can’t see how, to an outsider, it is so, so different. It makes me wonder what sort of things in my own life and culture I would struggle to explain.

A: Yeah, this was one thing that was really impressive. Like, man, how did you ever figure that out?

C: Yeah! He is very good at linguistics!

When explaining his difficulty in translating the Pirahã word xibipíío, Everett says, “Eventually, I realized that this term referred to what I call experiential liminality, the act of just entering or leaving perception… The word xibipíío therefore reinforced and gave a positive face to the pervasive Pirahã value I had been working on independently. That value seemed to be to limit most talk to what you had seen or heard from an eyewitness” (Ch. 7). Attempt to imagine your life if the only topics about which you spoke were those witnessed by you or conveyed to you by an eyewitness. In what ways is your imagination limited by our Western perspective? Is it possible to translate the Pirahã culture to a modern Western culture, or is it impossible to reconcile the Pirahã point of view with our own?

C: … I mean, don’t hold back and just give us easy questions.

A: [laughter]

C: Wow, so, yeah. I feel like I have kind of set my career in a field [marine biology] that necessitates things that you cannot observe yourself. Less so for me than for other science people. But still, science by definition is dealing with things that we don’t understand fully, and therefore, I think, by definition, things that we have not fully witnessed and taken in.

A: Yeah, I would be interested…

C: You can’t do science in Pirahã society.

A: Well, because that’s the thing, is I’d be interested to learn—well, what qualifies as an eyewitness? Like, does me reading this lab report that was done by this other person—does that qualify as an eyewitness or would I have to talk to them in person?

C: Well, I’m thinking about them when he translates parts of the Bible, and they’re like, so Jesus, is he brown or white? And Everett’s like, well, I haven’t met him, he lived many years ago. And then they’re like, nope!

A: Yep! Peacin’ out!

C: So, I think if you—my take, which I’m not certain is correct, is that if Everett had at least met this Jesus guy, then even if you haven’t talked to him about the things he’s written down, at least you know him, so you take those as if he has witnessed them himself?

A: That’s probably a fair interpretation. Unfortunately, I’m kind of like, this is a question to which I cannot really know the answer. But it is interesting, because so much of our Western culture depends on information that we receive from thousands of other people, both historically and in our modern time. I mean, just everything you do throughout the day—everything depends on information being transmitted from one person to the next person and to the next person—like, shopping! So, someone has to design this, and then convey that design, and then they have to figure out, well, what’s the price, we need to get the materials—and yeah, you’re not telling a story about, like, a shirt, but—

C: And just the concept of what clothes are appropriate for what situation. That also kind of feels like an intangible concept that would not translate well to the Pirahã culture.

A: Because it’s so… as you’re being raised, you’re constantly being told stories about things that are made up and then also things that are historical.

C: And a lot of these things are used to impart a lesson or knowledge or something. And I feel like we gain a lot by that, but I do see—because it does contribute to this culture of “people read something and they assume it’s true.” And that kind of misinformation cannot be perpetuated with the Pirahãs.

A: Yeah, misinformation. Also, I wonder what effect it has on cultural bias, like, racism, sexism, stuff like that. I would love to know if—because it can go both ways, I feel like. You know? Because it’s a conservative culture, you constantly replicate the same culture, so you would keep those negative aspects. Or, if you’re only really dealing with the people who are alive now or were recently deceased, then, would those negative things be passed down? In what way would they be passed down?

C: I would be fascinated to hear—so we know that they think they are superior to Americans and white people, and who’s to say they’re wrong.

A: And, I’m not sure—I think they have no desire to become like foreigners.

C: He specifically says they think they’re superior.

A: Oh, I guess there is bit of that, yeah.

C: I’m curious to know—it sounds like it was very difficult for Everett to get perspectives from Pirahã women.

A: Yeah, he’s mostly talking to men.

C: The women would, at first, it sounded like, not talk to him at all. And then it sounded like they would talk to him about a much more limited scope of things.

A: Yeah, because they do seem to have very strict gender roles, which—I’m interested, because he talked about how there was no obvious sign of discontent, and I thought he explained pretty well what he saw as a rationale. But I would be interested, because of course you’re not going to catch everything as an outsider and as somebody who didn’t grow up—

C: And especially as a man.

A: Yeah, so, in a way I think this goes back to how he opened the book, saying, “These are my lessons,” and it is his personal point of view, and his person, essentially, the fact that he is male, that influences who he is talking to and what he’s seeing in the society. He’s going to be hanging out with men, predominantly, in the society, not the women.

C: Yeah, it does seem like there are pretty strict roles, and I wonder what happens if someone doesn’t want to fit those roles. If there’s any allowance for that sort of thing.

A: Yeah, that’s the stuff where I’m like, man, someone needs to go in there and get more info, I’m fascinated! Yeah. So, I definitely think my imagination is limited by my Western perspective, because I feel like it is impossible to conceptualize what my life would be like without—

C: It’s so antithetical to our experience, to our culture. Yeah. You wouldn’t have any of that— [gestures to my shelves stuffed with books at maximum capacity]

A: I wouldn’t have any of those books! Wouldn’t have my computer, probably—

C: Like, I don’t see how you can do science and technology without being able to deal with intangibles and that kind of thing.

A: Yeah, I really don’t think it’s possible to translate the Pirahã culture to our modern Western culture. Like, I can’t—

C: I can’t!

A: —imagine… I mean, by introducing modern technology to them—it would completely change their culture.

C: And it’s interesting how they are aware of that on some level with how thoroughly they reject—like, they will use tools that are useful, but they won’t—even when they are taught how and they clearly get how to build a canoe, they won’t. And I don’t understand that!

A: Right! It’s such a…

C: Like, you could have a better canoe, you know what to do, you can do this!

A: Like, yeah, but we don’t do that!

C: And that, in itself, I don’t think would really change—although what do I know, if it would change what it means to be a Pirahã—but it’s a sort of first drop of the waterfall. I think, if you have decided, or—I don’t even know if it’s a conscious decision—but if you’re going to keep this really different society that’s so strictly isolated, you do have to draw that hard of a line.

A: Yeah… the canoe example is really good. That was the part where I was like, oh no, this is a culture completely outside of my Western perspective—

C: Of my capability to even thoroughly understand.

A: Yeah.

When discussing the Pirahãs’ conservative culture, Everett says, “Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you” (Ch. 6). From a Western perspective, it is easy for us to identify features of the Pirahãs’ culture that they should be eager to change, such as their lack of access to quality medical care, which in turn leads to their significantly shorter lifespans, as well as their general seclusion from other technological and scientific advances. Before reading this book, what did you feel constituted an “advanced” culture? How about now that you’ve read the book? Whether or not your answer changed, defend your point of view.

C: I—and I don’t really know why—have actually thought about the concept before, of different things that qualify…

A: Well, you read a lot of sci-fi, so I think that’s probably—

C: Yeah, that’s probably it. But yeah, I kind of see “advanced” as possibly meaning two really separate things. There’s the sort of technological and “know how” kind, when you’ve got electricity and all of these fancy tools, and I think you can‘t say that’s not advanced in its own sense. But then there’s also socially advanced, where you’re talking about something that’s very—people have what they need, there’s not poverty, there’s not hunger—or at least no more so than the norm, in the case of the Pirahãs. I feel like I was thinking about this in the terms of Lord of the Rings and fandom—

A: Okay!

C: So, let’s talk about how, theoretically, in elven society, everyone is happy and has what they need, and I don’t think there’s such a thing as a poor elf.

A: Yeah.

C: And I also don’t see them interested in sort of importing technological advances, because they have what they need and they exist in the world in the way they want to exist, and that’s… good for them!

A: Yeah…

C: That said, this is also a fantasy culture, and they don’t have, you know, disease!

A: Yeah, I’m trying to think, before I read this book… when it comes to advanced culture, I think I felt that technology played a role as far as allowing medical advances and having technology that gives you better access to opportunities. But then also I think, how do those tools benefit you socially, the way you were talking about? I think the two had to go hand in hand for my perception of an advanced society, prior to reading this book, because you can’t have one and not the other. Because an advanced society, for me, should be, like, everyone is living a comfortable, happy life that’s sustainable for future years of that society.

C: So now you’ve got to redefine what comfortable and happy mean.

A: Yeah, so that’s the thing—the Pirahãs are well aware that other people live longer, and that there’s more access to medical care in cities. But they choose to stay where they are—

C: To reject that—

A: And at one point, I think Everett’s like, oh, why do you think I’m here? And they’re like, because it’s a beautiful place? The river is very beautiful, there’s plenty of fish and fruit to eat, and we’re the nicest people. And Everett’s like, well … okay, hard to argue! And I was like, okay, that’s fair to say.

C: So, they are content. They see Everett’s deep freakout when his wife and daughter—like, understandable, from our point of view, when they have malaria! And they’re just like…

A: Bring us back some nails!

C: They’re like, chill, man! This happens. This is how it is.

A: Yeah.

C: And they know it doesn’t have to be that way, but they think it’s… right that it is, somehow? Maybe?

A: Well, I think they have more acceptance for the problems they face.

C: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true. Now, what I’m wondering is—I think they get that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that they could change it if they so chose.

A: Yes, I think so.

C: They’ve decided they won’t. Is this because they think it’s just right that it is this way? Is it that they think that changing this would change other things that it’s not worth changing about themselves?

A: I think I would lean more towards the second one, because to go back to the canoe example, where Everett’s like, now you can make your own canoes, and they’re like, yeah, but Pirahãs don’t make canoes. So, I think that they see these things as both—you know, they live somewhere so beautiful, they have plenty of food, all these things… I think they see those beautiful things going hand-in-hand with the things that are not so great. And if you change the things that are not so great, then I think they feel like they will lose the beautiful things that make them who they are as well.

C: Mmhmm.

A: … I think? I don’t know? I’m not a Pirahã! That would be my best guess. So, I think this has challenged me… I don’t know that I have a good answer now, for what constitutes an advanced culture, because I feel like this has kind of troubled my definition of it in some ways.

C: Yeah, it does make me wonder, “What am I doing with this 90-year lifespan?” Like… is it worth—we talked in Six Wakes about immortality, would you do it, yes or no. And so, is this 90-year lifespan that we currently have worth it, if we might be happier with 40 years? That’s also a question.

A: Yeah, that is a good question.

C: Like, what would you give up to increase your mental wellbeing? I’m not sure whether you can say that our technological advances don’t sometimes maybe indirectly lead to a decrease of happiness and mental health and stuff.

A: Well, that was actuallywhen I was living in Italy for the full year, I was so annoyed, all the time, because everyone in Italy is always late, everything always takes forever—like, you go out trying to buy groceries and you get sucked into a 20-minute conversation with some random person you’ve seen twice before. All this stuff took forever! And then slowly, by the end of the year, I was like, okay, but there is this positive where everything is much more relaxed? In the U.S., it’s like, you’ve got to do these things, you’ve got to go and be on schedule all the time. I feel like in the U.S., I have to be doing stuff constantly. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time, and I’m not as valuable as a person, essentially. 

C: I’ve certainly seen that applied in my own life.

A: Yeah, whereas in Italy, I think there’s plenty of time to just relax and enjoy spending time with people.

C: So, I’m curious. There’s that culture, and you’ve got a lunch break in the middle of the day. Do you know what an Italian working lunch break is like?

A: You literally go home for two and a half hours to have lunch.

C: That’s fucking wild.

A: Yeah, all the shops close for three or four hours midday. And everyone just goes home and eats lunch and takes a nap, maybe, and then the shops reopen for the evening.

C: So… that’s so much longer than I could ever have imagined. And so what happens if you’re on your 2.5 hour lunch break and you take a longer nap than you meant, or you get caught up in conversation and you come back late to your desk? Is it chill?

A: I mean, you have to be on time for some things, but they allow more time in between things. In the U.S., it’s like, half hour lunch break, DONE. Whereas there it’s like, oh, you have two and a half hours to make lunch, eat lunch, chat, relax, and then go back to work. So…

C: That’s why they’re eating dinner at ten, because if you do that

A: Yes, this is why.

C: —then your work day, including your long lunch break, goes from 8 am until 7 pm!

A: Mmhmm. Yeah, it’s very different. And that’s the thing, because so much of Italian culture, I can see benefits in it—but from an American perspective, it drives me nuts! So it really is so dependent on “what are you used to.” And it took me ten months to reach a point where I was like, okay, this doesn’t irritate me anymore. But whenever I go back to Italy, I try and keep it chill, like, I’m just here for three weeks. But I just always remember when we went to see a piano concert, and it was an hour late starting, because they had to tune the piano. While we were all just sitting there! I was like, oh my god. I feel like this really sums up this country.

C: Yeah… and everyone’s just, like, fine about it?

A: Everyone is just chill!

C: I mean, I did plan to go to a 2-hour concert, so I did block out 5 hours of my evening.

A: Pretty much! Because also you’ll meet people who you know at the concert, and then you’ll have to stand around chatting for, like, another hour after the concert’s over.

C: It’s interesting, and I do see the advantages, but you do have to rework your own perception of how time should progress.

A: Exactly.

C: There was a certain amount of that in the Caribbean too, especially because so many people there are not employed in our traditional job style there. They’re fishermen, they’re running their own little shop—like, there are rules. If you’re the cook at Chicken Bar, I think there are rules about when you have to show up to start making food for the night.

A: Yeah, probably.

C: But if I’m going out to look for a certain food at this one little grocery store, there’s some extent of going to see if it’s open or not. And sometimes at lunch we would go and try to play dominos with a friend down the street. And because we’re trying to keep this American culture in this different place, we’ve got a very limited time. They knew that we could only come for a short time, but they were never trying to be like, okay, so let’s get moving so we can get our game in. It was just like, we’re going to move at our own pace.

As he explains how he came to let go of his belief in both God and truth, Everett says, “From the time we are born we try to simplify the world around us. […] In specific intellectual domains we call our attempts at simplification ‘hypotheses’ and ‘theories.’ Scientists invest their careers and energies in certain attempts at simplification. […] But this type of ‘elegance theorizing’ (getting results that are ‘pretty’ rather than particularly useful) began to satisfy me less and less. […] The Pirahãs are firmly committed to the pragmatic concept of utility. They don’t believe in a heaven above us, or a hell below us, or that any abstract cause is worth dying for” (Ch. 17). Do you agree with the Pirahãs and, by extension, Daniel Everett? Or do you think there is a value to “elegance theorizing” in either a religious or scientific sense? Explain your answer.

C: Are hypotheses and theories always simplification? Or are they sometimes just seeking understanding? Or is understanding the same as simplification?

A: I think it can sometimes be the same. Because I don’t think he’s saying that simplification is always bad. It’s just that sometimes—because I took him mentioning “elegance theorizing” in science to mean, like, when he was trying to grapple with the Noam Chomsky theories, and kept being like, well, this is too simple. This is too elegant. It doesn’t allow—

C: It doesn’t allow for the variation of life.

A: Yeah, and I saw that as the best example of… Because obviously some scientific theories are, as far as we know, correct—like, basic stuff.

C: Gravity.

A: Gravity. Those things. But I think in some ways he’s addressing the social sciences more than hard sciences, as far as being like, okay, this is how we simplify life.

C: Sort of getting into the concept that the human brain and the human experience is massively complex. And in the same way, we can’t—there are certain things that I don’t think should ever be entrusted to an AI.

A: Mmhmm. YES.

[laughter]

C: And part of that is just that we are processing things at so many levels that, if we can’t break it down into its essential components, I don’t think we can teach a machine to do it. And so, yes, in that sense, I’m open to the concept that there are some ideas, some things that can’t be fully understood, that are just intrinsically too complex. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try our best. Because even if things fail, I think there’s a lot to be learned from the ways in which they fail, and if you find a new theory—I know fuck all about linguistics, I now think Chomsky is full of shit—

A: [laughter]

C: I do think we probably gained something from his work, and it did have value. They describe a piece of the whole, and even if we can’t get one single unified theory of everything, we can understand a piece of it. And as we learn about what piece we do understand and where the limitations of that knowledge are, I think that has intrinsic value.

A: Yeah, I think that I do agree. I think that it depends on the way you’re framing it, because I think there is a big difference between you going, I came up with this theory that explains everything and it will never be wrong, which is very different from you going, I have… this thought, everybody, tell me what you think. I’m not sure it’s right, but I think it’s a good place to start. So it’s a very different way of phrasing your attempt to simplify and to help others understand larger concepts.

C: I do think sometimes we get advancements because people do want to find that theory that describes the entire field. And so I do understand that, when you think you’ve got it, you do frame it as such? But I think that’s part of being a scientist—that you have to be open to comments, to criticism—like, if we learn new facts that break this down, I have to accept that. That is so absolutely intrinsic to my view, where if you really want to grill me on it and say, do you believe anything absolutely, I’m like, there is very little I think you couldn’t change my mind on, if you provided solid evidence that I was wrong.

A: Yeah, well, it’s interesting, also, because I noticed many times in the book, Daniel Everett was like, okay, so there’s this thing that might suggest this, but people need to do more research on it.

C: Yes!

A: There are many times when he said that about his own work in trying to figure out certain explanations. Then also just recently, when I was reading Human Body Decomposition [by Jarvis Hayman and Marc Frederick Oxenham], which was a survey of scientific history in forensic science, there were a lot of points in that book where they were like, okay, this study showed these results, which suggests maybe this is a thing, but here are all the different ways that we need to test it further in order to prove that it’s actually true.

C: Mmhmm.

A: And so I definitely agree that that’s the right

C: There’s certainly value coming in and being aware of your own limitations, or potential limitations for whatever your theory is.

A: Yeah, I get the feeling Everett’s main beef is with somebody who’s trying to create a unanimous theory for an entire field and being like, … [dusts off hands] done! Because it sounds like he was onboard with Noam Chomsky, but as he was trying to pound the Pirahã language and culture into this model, he was like—

C: He couldn’t do it.

A: Yeah, and slowly started to be like, … no, this is bullshit.

C: I think it’s good to reevaluate the things that you are absolutely convinced are true, every so often. And that’s a hard thing to do. Like, it’s hard for me to just sit here on this bed and be like, okay, what’s something I believe completely, and might I be wrong?

A: Yeah.

C: So I think that’s one of the values of putting yourself into unfamiliar situations and trying new things and experiencing new things. Because that is likely to bring you up against things that you thought you knew for sure.

A: Yeah, I agree with that.

Consider the Pirahãs’ “good night” message of “don’t sleep, there are snakes.” Of course, we do not live in the Amazonian jungle, and are unlikely to encounter any of the snakes which make a guest appearance in Everett’s memoir. As we work to translate experience and point of view between cultures, however, we must often try to find common ground where there seems to be none. What would be the “snakes” in your own life? How would you translate this Pirahã expression to your own point of view? (Note: After our discussion of this question, I added: Or is it even possible for you to do so?)

C: Okay, so how literally are we taking this? So the “don’t sleep, there are snakes,” they literally don’t want you to sleep too long, because they believe that makes you weak.

A: Well, it’s kind of two-fold, because it’s like, don’t sleep, there are dangerous animals and it makes you more susceptible to dying because of not being alert. But then at the same time, it’s like, don’t sleep, this place is beautiful, there is so much to do and enjoy—which I think is a part of it also.

C: Huh!

A: That’s what I remember, anyway, from reading it.

C: I don’t remember that bit, yeah.

A: Yeah, I remember him explaining it was kind of two-fold—at least the “don’t sleep” part of it had two different reasons.

C: So the snakes are both the sort of things you should be watching out for, instead of just relaxing about, and also things you shouldn’t be missing out on?

A: Uhh, not the snakes, I would say just “don’t sleep” is the only dual part of the statement.

C: Okay, so the snakes are the sort of inherent dangers that you need to remain vigilant about.

Additional quote from the book: “I have learned so much from the Pirahãs over the years. But this is perhaps my favorite lesson. Sure, life is hard and there is plenty of danger. And it might make us lose some sleep from time to time. But enjoy it. Life goes on.” (Prologue)

C: What are my snakes?

A: I feel like… well, stress sounds too vague, but—kind of like we were talking about earlier, U.S. versus Italy, where in the U.S. there’s this certain pressure to achieve things in life, and do great things, and have something to leave behind you. And we also, like, the more stressed out somebody is, the more people are like, oh, they’re working hard, they’re doing it right! And it’s like, oh god, it’s horrible! So in our culture, from my perspective, I feel like the snakes would be focusing more on work or doing great achievements or whatever, rather than enjoying life and spending time with people and creating and doing things you enjoy. … I don’t know. That’s my personal take on it, I guess?

C: I’m still just trying to fit the phrase into my understanding.

A: Okay.

C: So don’t… don’t forget to enjoy life, there are societal stressful pressures… like, that doesn’t…

A: Yeah, like, we don’t have any immediate threats to life the way the Pirahãs do.

C: Oh, sure. It’s just the phrase doesn’t track.

A: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the point of this question. Like, is it possible to translate the phrase?

C: I just don’t know what “snakes” means in my own life. Because I understand what you’re saying and I think it’s a valid point. I don’t think it has anything to do with that phrase.

A: Alright.

C: I mean, I took that, in my own life, a little more immediately personally—I think I sometimes get complacent about where I am, when it’s just providing enough for me to get by on. Like, example of the old office job where I was obviously not happy there—

A: Yeah.

C: But I stayed there because it was a steady income, and I knew it was secure and safe. And it was not good for me in a lot of ways, but the unknown was worse. And I did struggle a lot, when I then was unemployed, and I only just now sort of got my feet on the ground. And it’s still not settled, because I am going to have to find another part-time job to do, on top of the wonderful new job happening now. So… is there a snake in there???

A: I mean, I think because we don’t have immediate threat to life or limb the way that the Pirahãs do, I feel like our dangers are more abstract because of this more complex—not necessarily better, but more complex—society that we have. I think our snakes are going to be more abstract, and also vary a lot, person to person.

C: Yeah, it’s like—I get the concept that there are dangers you need to be vigilant towards, and this phrase gives you the solution for that. And I can’t think of any way to get both of those factors into any sort of concise English explanation of the dangers we face in our society.

A: Yeah, I mean, the point of the question was to kind of dive into that

C: Can it be done???

[laughter]

C: Yeah, so, I think I’ve talked myself into no.

A: I mean, I think we can come at it from a vague, abstract way. But I think you can really only understand the phrase the way it’s meant to be understood in its original cultural context, where there are snakes that can kill you!

C: Whereas the things that are going to kill you here are, like, heart disease and health-related issues that are just the result of our way of life. And there is not a clean solution to that, which is an interesting point in and of itself!

A: Yeah, that’s true. Because it’s like, okay, well what do I need to do in order to live longer? Well, eat well all the time, exercise all the time, de-stress your life all the time

C: Have a job that pays well enough while de-stressing your life—oh wait—

A: Oh, hold on

C: Fail. Fail already.

A: So I feel like our society is more complex and more complicated, as far as what are we supposed to do in order to have an ideal life. And it’s like, many of the different factors that count as an ideal life actively combat each other, as you’re pointing out. Like, okay, well I need to have good health insurance, so then I have to work at this job that pays me enough money and gives me health insurance, but, like, I hate it.

C: And you’re constantly stressed, so you’ve got more health problems.

A: And you know, especially with all the exercise I’ve been doing, it’s like, man, it’s a commitment! It takes a 2-hour chunk out of my day, every day!

C: I know, I keep thinking about you doing that. I’m just like, that’s too much! It’s not worth it! But is it???

A: I don’t know! Like, I’m sure it’s good for me, but

C: But at what cost?

A: Yeah, exactly! Because then I’m more stressed out in some ways, because I have less time to get stuff done. Or like, I’m trying to finish exercising before I go to this thing on my schedule.

C: You’ve agreed we’re going to meet at 10:30 to go shopping, so now you’d better start exercising by 8:00! So yeah, I think my answer to this question is, what is the value of having a life this complex? Are the benefits that we feel we gain by having a life this advanced in one area offset by then having lots of intrinsic dangers that we cannot address cleanly?

A: Yeah… it’s a good question.

C: Found it. Found it!

A: Yep, alright!

[laughter]

A: Problem solved.

C: Boom. Wait, no, that was just articulating the problem.

[laughter]

C: Yeah, I am fascinated by the Pirahãs, I am very glad this was a discussion book, and I am curious about rereading this book at some point.

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