Skill of skills

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The excerpt that follows is taken from Tim Ingold’s book “The Perception of the Enviroment” published by Routledge in London (2000:361).

[…] For these inhabitants of intermontane valleys, the current of water in a river or stream is as familiar a part of experience as is the motion of the hands in looping. Now it seems reasonable to suppose, likewise, that the weaver bird has as much of a ‘feel’ for air currents, while on the wing, as it has for nest materials in building with its beak. However what the bird does not do, so far as we know, is to tie these different strands of perception and action together. If birds were human, they would say that the good weaver is one whose beak seems to ‘fly’, just as Telefol say that the skilled looper is one whose hands ‘flow’. But they do not do this. Human beings, it seems, differ from other animals in that they are peculiarly able to treat the manifold threads of experience as material for further acts of weaving and looping, thereby creating intricate patterns of metaphorical connection. This interweaving of experience is generally conducted in the idioms of speech, as in story-telling, and the patterns to which it gives rise are equivalent to what anthropologists are accustomed to calling ‘culture’.

However, culture thus conceived cannot be understood to comprise a system of intrinsic rules or schemata by means of which the mind constructs representations of the external world from the data of bodily sensation, nor can speech be regarded simply as a vehicle for the articulation of these mental representations. Speakers no more ‘use’ their voice, as Plato would have had it, as the mere instrument of a language-based intelligence, than they ‘make’ sense by superimposing their pre-existing designs upon the raw material of experience. Rather, in speech, the voice is incorporated into a current of sensuous activity – namely, narrative performance – from which, as it unfolds, form and meaning are continually generated. For speaking is itself a form of skilled practice, and as such, exhibits all the generic properties of skill to which I have already drawn attention. Like any other skill, speech develops along with the growth of the organism, is continually responsive to perturbations in the perceived environment, and is learned through repeated practical trials in socially scaffolded contexts. Above all, it cannot be reduced to the mechanical execution of a rule-governed system, or ‘grammar’. Yet speech is no ordinary skill. Weaving together, in narrative, the multiple strands of action and perception specific to diverse tasks and situations, it serves, if you will, as the Skill of skills. And if one were to ask where culture lies, the answer would not be in some shadowy domain of symbolic meaning, hovering aloof from the ‘hands on’ business of practical life, but in the very texture and pattern of the weave itself. […]