Review: Ingold, Lines: a brief history

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. 186pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

Get out your walking stick and your comfortable shoes as you accompany Tim Ingold on this intellectual wayfarers’ journey exploring the “comparative anthropology of the line” (p1). In his path-breaking book, Lines: A Brief History, Ingold guides readers through a unique theoretical model that explores the interconnected and enmeshed lines of people and things. Ingold argues things and people are the sum of interconnected lines; to study “things and people is to study the lines they are made of” (p5). Lines and their relationships to surfaces offer a provocative frame from which to consider questions central to anthropology.

Anthropologists will find themselves familiar with “lines”: lines of descent, lines of story, lines of travel, lines of movement, lines of music, and so on. Lines: A Brief History challenges established conventions, such as kinship charts that use line to connect the dots, to advocate a theoretical approach that accounts for movement, growth and interrelationship. This challenge is animated by a key theme used throughout the book – the distinction between wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring describes a way of being in that the “traveler and his line are one and the same” (p 76). The path of the wayfarer is where life is lived. Drawing on Gibson, Ingold states that the wayfarer’s path is where knowledge is forged along the way. Transport lines are destination-oriented. They are connectors. The traveler becomes a passenger fighting against time to reach a destination. Transport lines are teleological. Ingold enjoins the reader to become wayfarer, engaging in the journey through chapters building up knowledge as one “goes along” forsaking the impulse for a “built up” conclusion.

In Lines, Ingold commences with the question how did speech become separated from song? He explores the historical relationship between speech, song, writing and musical notation. Before the printing press, both written text and song were performative as were the processes of inscription. Written notation functioned as mnemonic artifact rather than a script or score that ensured a faithful record or copy. Using comparative examples from medieval history, present day Shipibo-Conibo people in Peru, and Japanese noh theater, Ingold argues that the words “speak” to readers not as a representation of sound but in the manner of synesthesia actual sound. Writing could not be accurately conceptualized as a “visual representation of verbal sound” (p27).

Both musical notation and writing involve lines and surfaces. “To read a manuscript… is to follow the trails laid down by a hand that joins the voice in pronouncing the words of a text” (p28). The advent of printing disconnected manual gesture from the graphic output and thereby disconnected the voice (embodiment) from the page of print. Printed works became static documents. What heralded this transformation was a “fundamental change” in the conception of line and its relationship to the surface. The inscribed printed lines (words) changed the manuscript surface from a landscape to be explored into a surface that is fixed and bounded.

Ingold proposes a taxonomy of lines. The two primary types are threads and traces. Threads have a surface and can be made by human hands, or not (i.e. roots, spider webs, yarn, fishing-net, violin strings). Traces are any enduring mark left in a solid surface. Traces can be additive or reductive, or neither (i.e. worn path, chalk on blackboard, stick in sand, snail trail). Ghostly lines have no physical manifestation (i.e. constellations, survey lines, time-zones, borders). Ingold notes that the distinction between ghostly lies and real lines is “decidedly problematic” (p50). The differentiation may privilege a Western perspective. The meridian lines of Chinese medicine may be real according to a Chinese practitioner but considered ghostly (imagined) to a Western observer. Ingold does not offer any guidance on how to resolve this conundrum. He concedes that the entire line taxonomy is imperfect and potentially confusing.

Surfaces are not simply a “taken-for-granted backdrop” (p39). Whether regarded as a landscape, a space to be colonized, the skin of the body or a mirror of the mind, the conception of the surface deeply affects its relationship to line. Threads transforming into traces create surfaces (p61). For instance, knitting constitutes a surface as the knotted threads form a single surface leaving traces of the composition still visible. Traces transforming into threads dissolve surfaces. To explicate, Ingold engages with Alfred Gell’s argument that apotropaic patterns are perceived to lure demonic forces to a particular surface by their fascination with an intricate pattern. Gell’s aerial-view perspective was mistaken. Ingold convincingly argues, the trap is not one of fascination, but rather, the lines drawn cease to be a surface and become threads that trap the demon. This example demonstrates the potential explanatory power of “a comparative anthropology of the line.”

Can lines help us understand the ruptures of modernity? In the final chapter, Ingold explores the implications of “straight” lines. Straight lines are associated with moral uprightness, quantitative explanations, reason and dignity. Somewhat parallel to the metaphor of wayfinding/transport, the “workmanship of risk” has been displaced in modern society by the “workmanship of certainty.” An implement of certainty, modern CAD design embodies no movement or gesture. The straight line, the line of certainty, has become an icon of modernity (p167). This is where ruptures occur. We are reminded that fragmentation can create passages.

Sections of this book are somewhat opaque and/or vague. Given the authors concluding statements we must accept that at some of these “loose ends” are intentional (p170). I’ve already mentioned that the taxonomy of line and surface have much room for elaboration. I’ll mention just one other example here. In the Introduction (p3), Ingold argues that if we envision evolution as a tangle of enmeshed intra-human and inter-species relationships “then our entire understanding of evolution would be irrevocably altered.” It is not clear if Ingold is referring to our proclivity to fix the human lives into “temporal moments.” Alternatively this passage could refer to the enmeshment of multiple species “continually [forging] their own and each other’s lives.” How either alternative would change our conception of evolution is not clear.

Lines: A Brief History invites the reader on a wayfarer’s journey. It’s not entirely clear where one is going or where one has been, but it is clear that one has grown along the way.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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