Monthly Archives: January 2014

Three Farmers: an obsession

(perhaps mostly for my own eventual rediscovery)

I’ve often had the experience that the first thing I read of a morning colors the day, setting in train what turns out to be a series of interlinked thoughts and explorations. Occasionally I’ve managed to catch the wave of that sequence and capture it to paper (or computer text), but more often stuff happens and I lose the train of associations. Or something shinier heaves into view and I’m diverted down some other path. This morning’s first read was a longish passage from Richard Powers’ Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance (1985/1987), which I’m rereading in the wake of Powers’ marvelous Orfeo.

First a bit of background. I’m sure that I first noticed Three Farmers (which I bought and first read in 1987) because of its cover illustration

–a photograph I’ve known and been influenced (or is it haunted?) by for 50-odd years. It’s by the German photographer August Sander, one of a dozen or so most influential in my own history of photographic aesthetic development (others: Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï… another whole clutch of possible posts). Here’s the image in more or less its original form:

Sander’s photograph has the added poignancy of being taken in 1914, so it’s easy to see (obvious to our modern sensibilities) that the “dance” they’re on the way to is WW I. And that’s how the novel begins, with the narrator discovering the photograph in a Detroit museum. And here’s how Powers himself describes how the novel began for him, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

In the early eighties, I was living in the Fens in Boston right behind the Museum of Fine Arts. If you got there before noon on Saturdays, you could get into the museum for nothing. One weekend, they were having this exhibition of a German photographer I’d never heard of, who was August Sander. It was the first American retrospective of his work. I have a visceral memory of coming in the doorway, banking to the left, turning up, and seeing the first picture there. It was called Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914. I had this palpable sense of recognition, this feeling that I was walking into their gaze, and they’d been waiting seventy years for someone to return the gaze. I went up to the photograph and read the caption and had this instant realization that not only were they not on the way to the dance, but that somehow I had been reading about this moment for the last year and a half. Everything I read seemed to converge onto this act of looking, this birth of the twentieth century–the age of total war, the age of the apotheosis of the machine, the age of mechanical reproduction. That was a Saturday. On Monday I went in to my job and gave two weeks notice and started working on Three Farmers. (from Paris Review interview)

…and for a real shot of versimilitude, you can hear Powers tell the story himself via a Language Log post.

Anyway, what I read (and then re-read several times) this morning was seven extraordinarily densely-packed pages (pp 260-267), in the middle of a novel that follows at least three braiding strands of narrative, includes biographical excursions (Henry Ford, Sarah Bernhardt) and WW I detalia, visits multiple landscapes (Detroit, Boston, Maastricht…), and still finds room to include a chapter on the philosophy of photography and Sander’s glorious photographic quest/project, Man of the Twentieth Century.

The challenge before me now is to somehow extract just what it was that electrified me about those pages, and it’s almost as if I need to invent a new way to write, so as to represent the kaleidoscope of neuronal firings that ensued as I read. A series of extracts might do to begin, but they won’t hold still on the virtual page –each calls for a pop-up or callout (or more likely several) linking outward to other material. And Powers’ prose does that quite a lot, making it a bit difficult to read in straight lines. So I transcribe parts of the text that seem especially portentious, in the hope that I’ll eventually be able to assimilate their message/s:

Biographies ask the question “How do the details of this particular life demonstrate the spirit of its times?” Making the life conform to the times sometimes involves editing the first, sometimes reinterpreting the second. In both cases, biography always involves much footwork to keep the biographer’s footwork hidden… (pg 260)

All lives are messy aggregates: [Henry] Ford the farmer, Ford the illiterate, Ford the mechanical genius, the progressive, the reactionary, the anti-Semite, the philanthropist. Modern times are, by definition, a few billion times messier. Linking one aggregate to the other requires a good dose of editing, and thereby temperament. (pg 261)

The paradox of the self-attacking observer is this century’s hallmark. Psychologists now know there is no test so subtle that it won’t alter the tested behavior. Economic tracts suggest that Model A would be inviolably true if enough people realized its inviolability. Political polls create the outcome they predict. Even in the objective sciences, physicists, in describing the very small, have had to conclude that they can’t talk about a closed box, but that opening the box invariably disturbs its contents.

These are the recognizable bywords and clichées of our times. Casual talk abounds with the knowledge that there is no understanding a system without interfering with it… “All observations are a product of their own times. Even this one.” [cf Gartner Hype Cycle, for an über-current example]

This recursion is critical, not because it places a limit on knowing, but because it shows the impossibility of knowing where knowledge leaves off and involvement begins… (pp 261-262)

With every action, we write our own biographies. I make each decision not just for its own sake but also to suggest to myself and others just what choices a fellow like me is likely to make. And when I look back on all my past decisions and experiences, I constantly attempt to form them into some biographical whole, inventing for myself a theme and a continuity. The continuity I invent in turn influences my new decisions, and each new action rearranges the old continuity. Creating oneself and explaining oneself proceed side by side, inseparably. Temperament is the act of commenting on itself. (pp 262-263)

Each discrete life examines and explains everything it touches in a constant exchange of mutual defining and reshaping. By living, we become our times’ biographer. (pg. 263)

Although we cannot hope to pin down a view of our subject undisturbed by our observation, we can test if we have reached an optimal fit between the two.

One such test is unsponsored recognition. Each day as I sift through my many new experiences, I find a few that I recognize without having any memory or experience of them. I do not mean mystical déja vu; I mean the practical moment artists call epiphany and scientists call the instant of aha.

At this moment of recognition I temporarily stop taking part in the thing at hand and jump a level in the hierarchy of awareness, no longer looking at the object from my vantage point, but at myself from the vantage point of the object. This shift of awareness away from the looked-at to the act of looking creates the illusion of familiarity, since this moment of standing outside the observed system is common to all other such moments.

…What I am experiencing is neither precognition nor submersion in mystical vision. It is a by-product of the way consciousness is structured, the consequence of our unusual ability to make one level of our terraced awareness double back and appraise another. At the moment when the stuff holding our attention dissolves and gives way to an awareness of awareness itself we recognize a community with all the other similar moments we have gone through –a concord, or close fit, between hypothesis and measured result.

…By slightly changing our angle of observation, a copse of seemingly random trees reveals itself as an orchard. This specific angle of observation, then, has an independent validity, revealing an order not of the viewer’s making. Such a surprise visit of the orchard effect is always pleasurable –filled with the delight of recognition, a sense of the community of all explorers who also touch base at this common spot.

I continually write my own biography by my actions, mixing involvement with knowledge, accountable to those moments when both drop away to reveal the act of mixing –something a priori recognizable. This process does not differ measurably from the way I come to understand others, my time, or past times. Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all future moments of corresponding circumstance.

We remember forward; we telegraph ourselves to our future selves and to others: “Rescue this; recognize this, or not this, but the recognizing.” If we constantly reform the continuity of our past with each new experience, then each message posted out of an obscure or as yet unexperienced past represents a challenge to re-form the future. No action unchanged by observation. No observation without incriminating action. Every moment of unsponsored recognition calls me to return to the uninspired world, to continue the daily routine of invention and observation, to dirty my hands in whatever work my hands can do. (pp 264-266)

To compound the instant of aha, I rounded the corner smack into the three farmers, more familiar to me than my own parents, though I knew beyond doubt that I had never seen them or their photo before. For the next several months I would be obsessed with finding the exact message the image meant to send me, mistakenly looking for it in names, dates, and places.

I had to learn that that none of that had any real importance, did not in fact exist without active interference from me. The black-and-white print was less a document for archiving than it was a call to action… (pp 266-267)

Here are some links to other takes on the book:

Wikipedia on Three Farmers

Richard Powers’ own website

Minnesota Review interview (2001) with Richard Powers

summary from A Modest Construct

Signal or Noise? Information Theory and the Novel (John Gunders –the last half discusses Three Farmers)

…each of the three story lines cycles in a predictable order: Chapters One, Four, Seven, etc. follow the story of the extradiegetic narrator; chapters Two, Five, Eight, etc., the three farmers, and so on. Selectively reading every third chapter produces a coherent narrative that largely stands on its own. The relationship between the three threads in the novel is a tension that holds the narratives in position. Each is completely explicable on its own, yet the additional meaning provided by the parallel threads at once enriches and problematises the meaning of the threads. None of the threads in the novel can be considered as more important than any other, whether contemporary or historical, extradiegetic or essayistic, and while the events in the contemporary thread are subsequent to those in the historical thread, their importance belies the subordination implied by the term ‘subsequent.’ It is this idea that I call temporal flattening. While the fabula of one thread is located some seventy years in the past, its sjuzet is indistinguishable from the contemporary threads, in either style or diction…

Orfeo continued

It was only two days ago Son John sent me a link to Laura Miller’s Salon review of Richard Powers’ Orfeo: A Novel and, intrigued, I got the book via Kindle. Been reading it ever since, underlining passages and even copying a few of them out. The first that got that treatment:

…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces… (Orfeo, page 2 or so)

Uh huh, I thought. Guilty. And it’s gone on like that, until I’m now 2/3 of the way through the book.

Again and again during this immersive reading I’ve found myself resorting to Google and other tools to elucidate some point, and I just found myself using Spotify to listen to Steve Reich’s Proverb, a realization of a Wittgenstein fragment

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life

No surprise that YouTube has it too:

(and commentator Roger Brunyate sez: “Do read (preferably while simultaneously listening) Richard Powers’ sublime description of this piece on pages 245–254 of his new novel ORFEO…”)

Well. Just goes to show, if it needed reiteration, how amazingly interwoven (Ted Nelson would say ‘intertwingled’) stuff is. I do wish that it was easier to snag bits of text from the iPad version of Kindle, to free them from the silo, because there are many others I’m inclined to stick into my Commonplace books.

Today’s reading

I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ Orfeo: A Novel and giddily highlighting bits of Kindle text as I came to things that poked and niggled and amused. Lately I’ve been thinking about reading as an activity, a passion, a compulsion, a means to assemble the significant; all in the context of a passage through Ted Nelson’s autobiography Possiplex (on which I made lots of notes as I read, and over which I continue to puzzle). Here’s a wonderful description of a reader’s experience:

…after some paragraphs, a clause swerved and slid him sideways into a drift, a soft passage several pages on, in the middle of the right-hand page, a sense-rich description of a man and woman walking down a street in Boston on a July night, reprised, in misty da capo, again yet once more, his eyes making their closed circuit, hitting the right margin’s guardrail, looping back around and trying the line again, tracking along the circuit of text, slowing then slipping down the stripped cogway of slick subordinate clauses, retrying the sequence until his dimming sight and again found traction –the man, the woman, a moment of regretful truth along the esplanade– before snagging and starting the fuzzy looping climb all over again. (Powers Orfeo pg 54)

Perhaps it’s not irrelevant that I’m also reading Swann’s Way

Yesterday’s reading

Yesterday I encountered 4 texts that are still rubbing against one another in my mind (a recurring situation, though not all instances produce pearls), and it seems worthwhile to try to capture the thoughts provoked.

First was a review by Richard Wilk of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, from American Anthropologist and sent by my friend Ron Nigh. Anthropologists generally grumble and sneer at Diamond’s methods and popularity, but Wilk’s review goes beyond the grumpiness and works over some of the implications of 40-odd years of changes in anthropology’s world view. Worth quoting at length to set the scene:

The World until Yesterday would have made a perfect textbook for the first introductory anthropology class I ever taught at Pima Community College in 1977… My tone in lectures was just like Diamond’s, showing a liberal appreciation for diversity, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss. This seemed like a respectful attitude toward people whose singularity was rapidly being gobbled up by a monolithic ” Western culture. ” We were comfortable with treating “traditional” peoples as timeless, immune from current events, so things they did 50 or 100 years ago could be recounted in the present tense…

The success of The World until Yesterday shows us that even though many anthropologists have left it behind, the traditional past continues to have power as a stance for a critique the present. The vast distance between the West and “the rest” allows our audience to accept a gentle moral critique of modernity in an unthreatening way. After all, traditional people are fading away and becoming more like “us” as they adopt cash economies, learn to speak national languages, drink, and perhaps snort coke…
In anthropology, we are now used to seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process, in which local people and communities must face and engage with bureaucrats, NGOs, large multinational corporations, distant markets, tourists, and conservationists. Diamond never mentions the mining companies that are ravaging parts of Melanesia, or illegal logging, corrupt politicians, and land theft. Nor does he perceive any conflict between conservationists and local people…

…I am sure Diamond will interpret anthropologists’ complaints about his work as political correctness, antiscience sentiment, or professional jealousy. That is much easier than recognizing that he has based his narrative on an analytical scheme that has been rejected; this work is like using phlogiston to explain what is happening in a particle accelerator.

The culmination of Diamond’ s imaginative generalizations about the traditional world is his lessons learned, a sequence of recommendations for how “we moderns” should treat our elders better, eat a more natural diet, learn more languages, and heal the violence of crime. These mild liberal recommendations are mostly aimed at individuals—there is no plan here for political or collective action, no hint of how we might challenge the power of corporations to determine what we can eat, or address the fundamental inequalities that feed crime and conflict. His plan is not going to change anything; it will only reinforce the fundamental National Geographic worldview of his liberal readers. Diamond’s book should, however, get anthropologists thinking about how we present our work to the world, both as writers and as teachers. I still teach introductory anthropology and find that the vast majority of textbooks are still structured like Diamond’s book, as an evolutionary progression, with “traditional” exotic ethnographic cases used to illustrate types of societies. We do not seem to have any master narrative that can displace the story of modernization, a morality play that has lost its radical potential. Do we pander to the crowd and tell stories that emphasize compassion and empathy while confirming fundamental prejudice in the search for a mass audience in the United States? Or do we have a story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency?

For me the takeaway involves thinking about my own approaches to teaching Intro Anthro back in the days when I used to teach the course, and considering how I’d approach the task now. I abhorred the textbooks that publishers flogged and used my own handout materials instead, and assigned readings that were tangential (hell, orthogonal) to ‘straight’ anthropology –one year I had the students read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar as stimulus material, but in retrospect I wasn’t able to carry that off successfully (good idea, though). I wanted my Intro students to engage with how the world was changing, and how people everywhere were being messed with. I can’t really claim that I offered a consistent radical critique (like, I wasn’t trying to be a Marxist) or even that I had a coherent vision of what I wanted them to emerge from the course thinking –I mostly just wanted them to be more interested in what was going on around them.

So I wrote back to my friend Ron thusly:

Perhaps it’s just because it’s early Monday and I have the Diamond review rattling around in my mind, but I just encountered a video that seems at the moment to speak to the Problem of how to communicate anthropology to current audiences. A few hours from now it’ll seem silly to make such a suggestion, but for the moment…

Forget for a moment that you don’t (probably) know the backstory, like who Janelle Monae is, or other versions of the song (you can see the lyrics via ). Listen to it, note that the black lady in the sequin dress is Janelle herself, and note that this is taking place at an Industry event (Billboard Women in Music 2013), and read a bunch of the comments. Here you have it in microcosm: the t-t-t-tightrope is the path each person has to tread and negotiate,

Like the Dow Jones and Nasdaq
Sorta like a thong in an ass crack

aw hell, now watch

Compare and contrast. It’s All There. The Postmodern Condition: I gotta keep my balance.

Probably just as well that I’m retired.

Anyway, a bit later in the day I started reading Ted Nelson’s autobiography Possiplex, as wild and wooly a carnival ride as one can find these days, and ran across this snippet:

Profuse connection is the whole problem of abstraction, perception and thought. Profuse connection is the whole problem of expression, of saying anything. It is the problem of writing. It is the problem of seeing– we see and imagine so much more than we can express. Trying to communicate ideas requires selection from this vast, ever-expanding net. Writing on paper is a hopeless reduction, as it means throwing out most of the connections, telling the reader only the smallest part in one particular sequence. (pg 36)

I don’t really agree with Nelson’s ‘hopeless reduction’ take on writing, though I surely feel the tug of all the unsaid might-have-been links. Writing can invite readers to consider what they might not have thought of themselves, and provide launchpads to their own essays in ‘profuse connection’. Sometimes what you can offer to readers is a more expansive view of familiar territory, just by exploring and enlarging a word or phrase.

So I started thinking about candidates for words that might serve as centerpieces for an Intro Anthro course in 2014, terms to encourage ‘profuse connection’ applicable to multiple situations, and help to build a “story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency”. Many words from Raymond Williams’ Keywords would make good candidates: Alienation, Civilization, Class, Community, Modern… the idea is not to define the terms, but to explicate their multiple meanings and senses and history of use, to see how they might broaden the questions we ask of the world around us. But we really want something that speaks to Wilk’s imperative for “seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process” in which people everywhere are enmeshed. The example that came to me is Co-op[ta]tion, one important sense of which is “the process by which a group subsumes or assimilates a smaller or weaker group with related interests.” This fate happens to individuals and to groups, and is arguably the most potent instigator of ‘culture change’. Everybody is more or less on the t-t-tightrope at some point in their life; some make a successful passage, and some fall…

That could be an exciting class to teach.

Simultaneously I was finishing John Williams’ Stoner, which is more or less about teaching and academic life. It turns out that the book (originally published in 1965) was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013 (“The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” earlier this year…”). Here are a few of the bits I was moved to copy out:

He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibility that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived… (pg 27)

…for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked in his study. (pg 100)

…in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter. (pg 179)

It hardly mattered to him that [his] book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of his that he could not deny was there, and would be there. (pg 277)

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. (pg 3)

The fourth text in yesterday’s interconnected reading binge is Evgeny Morozov’s Making It, from last week’s New Yorker, which deals with hackers and makers, both terms that deserve the sort of historically-informed explication alluded to above.

When, in November, [Stewart] Brand was asked who carries the flag of counterculture today, he pointed to the maker movement. The makers, Brand said, “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your own way.” Makers, in other words, are the new hackers. (pg 71)

Morozov covers a lot of territory in a few pages and knits in a broad range of thinkers and doers, including Mary Dennett, Buckminster Fuller, Kevin Kelly, Murray Bookchin, Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs.

Then there are the temptations facing the movement. Two years ago, DARPA –the research arm of the Department of Defense– announced a ten million dollar grant to promote the maker movement among high-school students. DARPA also gave three and a half million dollars to TechShop to establish new makerspaces that could help the agency with its “innovation agenda.” As a senior DARPA official told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “We are pretty in tune with the maker movement. We want to reach out to a much broader section of society, a much broader collection of brains.” (pg 73)

(Can you say ‘co-opt[at]ion’?)

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. (pg 74)

It was quite a day.

and now some on Reading

Sometimes what I write in the basically 1:1 medium of email needs to be saved where I can find it more easily, and/or seems like it might want to be shared more widely, so I contrive some way to nudge the text into the semi-public medium of the blog. A continuing series of exchanges loosely centered on writing is a current example, and so I’m following up my post on Writing with yesterday’s thoughts tending toward Reading. Don’t know that I’ll ever refine these thoughts, but if I ever want to, I’ll be able to find where I started.

Word of the day

I’ve always kept an ear cocked for portentious words, those with more space on their insides than their exteriors might suggest. Sometimes they’re uncommon words, like mendacity or nugatory or tendentious… words that facilitate well-honed calumny, and (truth to tell) suggest that I am more literate than thou. Other words in the land of portent are more broadly familiar, but encode niceties of expression and fine distinctions of meaning, accessible to connoisseurs; Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, W.V. Quine’s Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary, and Collins and Glover’s Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War are three lexicons of this sort of verbal tesseractitude, each a catalog of explications rather than a collection of definitions. And of course there are portmanteau words and other idiosyncratic coinages, of which H. Dumpty famously said “I pays them extra and I makes them mean what I like”.

Today’s case-in-point has been tumbling in my consciousness all day today, gathering momentum as an explanation or enlargement of an issue that’s been on my mind: prestation is the word, and the issue at issue is my own long-running habit of (seemingly) giving away collations of information –texts, lists, sound files, images, books– on the slimmest of pretexts. “Informing others against their will” as my sigfile says, but what is it that lies behind this proclivity of mine? And whence cometh it, the behavior and the mot juste alike?

I first encountered the term ‘prestation’ in a graduate school course, not one I took myself but one that good friends of mine were in and talked about, in the way we talked about stuff in those dear dead days. The term is (and isn’t it obvious) French, and figures prominently in the work of Marcel Mauss. Here’s a nicely anonymous summary from Wikipedia, which saves us all a lot of time:

In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never “free”. Rather, human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (1990:3). The answer is simple: the gift is a “total prestation”, imbued with “spiritual mechanisms”, engaging the honour of both giver and receiver (the term “total prestation” or “total social fact” (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim’s social fact). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost “magical”. The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them” (1990:31). Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honour and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one’s spiritual source of authority and wealth. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving – the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one’s own liberality, honour and wealth.

Hmmm, I think. Is this what I do, what I’ve always done, as long as I can remember? When I point somebody to a website (or, often enough, a whole bunch of websites) or press upon them books or inveigle them into listening to “just a few” musical examples or otherwise foist bits of my knowings upon them, is there a subtext of demand/desire for some kind of reciprocation? And have I known this for 40+ years, but never realized it as a recurrent pattern? Is this an essential part of my disquietude with teaching –that I wanted and expected and even craved reciprocal engagement from students and colleagues? Was I somehow wounded or disappointed when the response to my ‘gift’ was silence or indifference or bafflement or “will this be on the exam?” Yup, all that rings true, and it’s interesting to find a sort of resolution, and to recognize why the sigfile motto pleases me so.

Once I’d decided to hunt down the quiddity of prestation, I was launched on just the sort of sport I most enjoy, chasing through Google search results and the print resources in my home library, and of course through my own organic memory banks too. Dictionary definitions are basically pedestrian, and even the OED is rather pallid:

…a payment …especially a feudal due… The action of paying in money or service, what is due by law or custom, or in recognition of feudal superiority; a payment or the performance of a service so imposed or exacted; also, the performance of something promised…[but the Supplement adds a specifically anthropological sense]

A gift, payment or service that forms part of some traditional function in a society, given or due either to specific persons or to the group.

The term shows up in only a few sources in English, e.g. in the subtitle of Gloria Goodwin Raheja’s The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village. It’s all over the place in French, not too surprisingly, mostly in the fiscal sense. And it even appears on t-shirts:

So I’ve happily flushed several hours of this afternoon tilting at the windmills of the mind…