Nearly Perfect: Notes on the Failures of Salvage Linguistics
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This dissertation examines the salvage era of American linguistics (c.19101940) and its focus on the extraction of knowledges and cultural artifacts from Indigenous groups whose civilizations were believed in peril. Through close readings of historical archives and published materials, I imbricate the history of these scientific collection practices through the interpretive frames of Science & Technology Studies (STS), deconstructive criticism, and postcolonial theory. I centre the project on the career of linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir, seizing upon his belief that linguistics was more nearly perfect than other human sciencesthat linguistic methods were more akin to those of the natural sciences or formal mathematics. I employ Sapir as the chief focalizer of my work to map the changing topography of the language sciences in North America over these pivotal decades of disciplinary formation. Failure, here, offers a heuristic device to interrogate the linear logics of science and success which buttress that desire for perfection. Both conceptually and historically, the dialectics of failure and success throw into relief the vicissitudes of fieldwork, the uncertainty of patronage relationships, and the untenable promise of salvage that characterized these years. Through this approach, I present linguistics instead as a kairotic sciencefrom the Greek kairos, suggesting opportunitynot perfect, but situated vividly in the world, bound by space, identity, and time. I examine how linguists conducted their collection work through the extension of a scientific network (Chapter 1), their construction of a scientific identity to the gradual exclusion of amateurs and the reduction of informant contributions (Chapter 2), and the development of an experimental system within the temporalities of fieldwork (Chapter 3). My dissertation hence invites a critical intervention within the history linguistics to re-encounter the sciences disregarded past and re-think its shared responsibility toward Indigenous communities in the present.