SLA interview with Rick Parmentier
What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
The principal argument of my paper “Diagrammatic Icons and Historical Processes in Belau” (American Anthropologist, 1985) was scribbled on a three-by-five card while in an ambulance taking me to the hospital after a massive injections of epinephrine. I did not know at the time that I have a fatal allergy to black hornets. While I have never again written anything “on drugs,” I still compose all my writing in my head.
What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?
Transforming my dissertation (1981) into The Sacred Remains (1985) was extremely difficult. I spent several years trying to answer a question put to me by George Stocking, Jr. during my dissertation defense: Why this particular set of signs?
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?
The powerful piece of political oratory delivered by Ngiraklang Malsol, which I was lucky to tape, was one of the highlights of my fieldwork. My students enjoy my more recent conclusion, that my original published analysis (in Lucy, ed., Reflexive Language) failed to take into account my role as the recorder of the speech. The inspiration for my rethinking the analysis is Michael Silverstein’s paper “The Secret Life of Texts” on Edward Sapir’s analysis of “Winter Bathing.”
What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell?
I like to tell the story about when, back in 1979, I got lost on a mountaintop looking for megalithic ruins in the forest at Ngeremeskang, about five miles from my home village. After making five passes straight down the mountain and then back up, marking the trees with a knife, I finally intersected the path. I did leave a note at the top of the mountain, willing my library to fellow graduate student Nina Kammerer.
Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?
I taught an advanced seminar on cultural semiotics for about 20 years that was always fun. I only spent one session on anthropological/archaeological papers, focusing, rather, on disciplines like art history, musicology, philosophy, linguistics, and literary theory. One student told me that, many years after she took the course, she could not remember anything but that she would never forget that she took the course.
How has teaching changed for you over the years?
For the first 15 years I enjoyed giving—that is, performing—formal lectures in large lecture halls. Then I cancelled all of those courses and began teaching a series of seminars or discussion classes in which my twin goals were never to perform and never to waste class time transmitting information. In the years just prior to retirement I did add a series of PowerPoint lectures in one of my classes, inspired by the lectures of my departmental colleague Javier Urcid, who is a master of this technology.
What book do you think people would be surprised to know is on your bookshelf?
Friends who know me are not surprised to see nine bookcases filled with CDs of Renaissance and Baroque sacred music, including every choral composition of, for example, Tallis, Gibbons, Byrd, Purcell, Handel, and Bach. I have a bookcase in the living room not easily visible from the sofa that contains my large collection of books on ancient aliens, Atlantis, the Kennedy assassination, global conspiracies, and fantastic archaeology. Next to my reading chair, not surprisingly, are the works of C. S. Peirce in both the eight-volume Harvard edition and the Indiana chronological series.
What is your favorite language, and why?
My field language, Palauan, is extremely complicated (especially the verb system) and was very difficult for me to learn. But I still enjoy listening to my field tapes from 37 years ago, especially the esoteric chants that were such a challenge to master. Several years ago a native speaker attended Brandeis as an undergraduate physics major, and we enjoyed chatting most Friday afternoons. I can still speak Palauan, but only while dreaming.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Perhaps it’s not too late to go to law school and to become, like my co-editor Beth Mertz, a law professor. I am lucky to be able remember spoken language (and music) from decades past, and I enjoy carefully constructed arguments. I did once teach a course on contemporary social theory at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, in which the students were the members of the law faculty.
Richard Parmentier is a professor at Brandeis University.