Literary Anthropology, Dendrochronology, and You

Image of a tree stump wherein the tree rings are overlaid with the silhouette of the tree as it was, fully grown.

Wow! Impressive title, right? Kind of intimidating to look at? To understand what it means, a little context. In high school, I was a super nerd. I went to a magnet school for the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) and was co-captain of Envirothon, an environmental science academic team. One of the fields of environmental science I studied for competition was forestry, and amongst other things, I learned how scientists use tree rings to study the history of trees, which is referred to as dendrochronology. The short version is that weather, presence of parasites, age, and other factors affect how a tree grows. You can dissect a tree’s entire life if you know what to look for.

Literary anthropology, on the other hand, is the study of humanity through the lens of literary texts. According to Kathleen Blake Yancy, “[w]riters’ identities are, in part, a function of the time when they live: their histories, identities, and processes are situated in a given historical context” (52). So, people—individual people and people as representatives of their respective cultures—can be studied and analyzed based on what they write, which is essentially antithetical to the Death of the Author theory and supportive of auteur theory.

At its core, literary anthropology maintains that literature is a mirror with which we can see our identities and cultures reflected.

Nevertheless, identity is rarely that simple; “[w]riting provides a means whereby identities are discovered and constituted. Yet those are never clear cut” (Villanueva 57). I had the fortune of attending a reading for fellow Mercer University alum and published poet Sara Pirkle Hughes. When asked if she considered herself a Southern poet, she replied that that was for the historians to decide.

Warning for racist language—a Chinese American poet tweeted the following:

“the 1st time i heard the word ‘chink’ was from a white boy i liked in 8th grade. he said he liked me too, liked that i didn’t have ‘really chinky eyes.’ i took it as a compliment. it took years for me recognize the racism, including the racism i’d internalized. words matter.”

-Chen Chen

Chen Chen felt alienated enough from his identity as an Asian man that he was willing to accept the backhanded, racist compliment from a boy if it fed him a scrap of validation. “Our identities are the ongoing, continually under-construction product of our participation in a number of engagements, including those from our near and distant pasts and our potential futures” (Roozen 51); at one point, his participation in racist culture caused him to internalize anti-Asian racism, and later on, his experiences allowed him to overcome that prejudice and gain pride in his identity.

Meanwhile, Sara Pirkle Hughes considers herself ill-equipped to define herself or her place in the contemporary literary scene. This uncertainty comes from a different source, owing less to insecurity and self-hatred than to the fact that “identities are, in part, a function of the time when they live: their histories, identities, and processes are situated in a given historical context” (Yancy 52). She cannot determine whether she is a Southern poet or not because that historical legacy has yet to be set.

What we can learn from all these facts—dendrochronology, literary anthropology, and the commentaries of Sara Pirkle Hughes and Chen Chen—is that while writing is useful as a way of determining and expressing identity, this tool is only useful in retrospection. Because we change and our writing changes alongside ourselves, our writing can only be analyzed for clues after we die and/or after we stop creating. Until then, we can only do our best to stay vigilant, self-reflect, and consider what our words say about us.

Students, writers, and people in general should know not just the value of their words and understand that while their writing reveals a lot about them, they are not married to whatever identity they espouse. There is always room, and time, for change.

References

@chenchenwrites. “the 1st time i heard the word “chink” was from a white boy i liked in 8th grade. he said he liked me too, liked that i didn’t have “really chinky eyes.” i took it as a compliment. it took years for me recognize the racism, including the racism i’d internalized. words matter.” Twitter, 13 Sep. 2019, 2:45 p.m., https://twitter.com/chenchenwrites/status/1172627325252505607.

Georgia Envirothon. “Georgia Envirothon Forestry Study Materials.” Georgia Envirothon, 2016. PDF.

Gisriel, Jim. “What is Auteur Theory? | Deep Focus.” YouTube, uploaded by Jim Gisriel, 11 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzTRjsefTXc.

Nicholas, Tom. “The Death of the Author: WTF? Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author Explained.” YouTube, uploaded by Tom Nicholas, 3 April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9iMgtfp484.

Poyatos, Fernando. Literary Anthropology: A New Interdisciplinary Approach to People, Signs and Literature. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1988.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 51.

Villanueva, Victor. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 57.

Yancy, Kathleen Blake. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 52.

4 Replies to “Literary Anthropology, Dendrochronology, and You”

  1. “Because we change and our writing changes alongside ourselves, our writing can only be analyzed for clues after we die and/or after we stop creating.”

    That’s an idea worthy of practical application. It’d be interesting to see what kinds of trends and/or growth patterns crop up in writers with sizable bibliographies.

    1. Samantha, the final words of this post are incredibly impactful, and lend to the idea that we can-and do-have an ever-changing identity in writing. Something that took me by surprise, however, was what you mentioned about a retrospective look. Realistically speaking, we all have goals in this medium. We have ideas about final papers, the dreaded capstone, and our own specialized pursuits of publication. Do these future endeavors not shape us in our identity? Do they necessarily have to be linked to our past work, and might the changes we experience in our writing be foreseen in some way?

  2. Samantha,
    I really resonated with the idea that our identity is ever-changing. If you take into account that writing is a way what we can figure out what we believe and who we are, it is interesting to see your progression through your writing. Also, thank you for the warning about the quote.

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