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Remarks on the Occasion of the Conference Banquet

in Honor of her Eightieth Birthday

Drid Williams

Figure 1

Nineteen-twenty-eight was "a year of the dragon." Three things important to me were born that year: the first published version of the Oxford English Dictionary (twelve huge volumes) that appeared in the English-speaking world on June 6, 1928.1 Second, Rudolph von Laban published his system of writing movement, called variously "Kinetography Laban" (Europe), "Dance Notation" or "Labanotation" (United States), and "Movement-Writing" by a few.2 Somewhat anticlimatically, on October 12, 1928, I was born.

     The other two births are meaningful because among the first memories I cherish is that of a raggedy, worn-out, leather-covered book that I carried with me everywhere, badgering the adults I encountered by thrusting the book at him or her saying, "Read me!" Laban's movement-writing is consequential because it is one of the areas related to the work I have done in which I'm convinced I've made very little, if any, impact. I'm still working on the significance of my own birth--about which I often have serious doubts--but I'm deeply touched and privileged to be at this conference, because it seems that others perceive some implications in my presence on this planet. I thank you all for that, especially Paul Hockings, my good friend, colleague, and trusted advisor on all things Asian, without whose effort and the many efforts of the Sociology Department at Hong Kong Baptist University, this conference would not have materialized. Your countless combined efforts are deeply appreciated.

Figure 1
Figure 2. Dr. Williams arrives at the banquet accompanied by Ms. Vivien Wong and Prof. KB Chan and welcomed by Prof. Paul Hockings.

And Brenda Farnell: when I was thirteen, I read Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, and there is one thought from his poem I didn't forget. Whitman declared, "I'm the teacher of athletes / He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own / He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."3 This has been my goal as a teacher. You, Brenda, have proved Whitman's thesis.

     Charles Varela: it was your questions and verbal challenges during many deeply satisfying discussions about semasiology in New York that made me think about what I said and how I said it in profound ways. You paid me the ultimate compliment of really listening. You learned what I produced over the years at Oxford. In some ways, you know more about semasiology than I do. What is even better, you can (and do) articulate it.

     David Best: any time I imagine I've arrived at some pinnacle of expression or reached some lofty goal in thinking, all I have to do is read a page or two in one of your books, and I'm brought back to reality with a bump. Your work has been a constant inspiration over the years, and you will ever stand as an example of real scholarship, dedication, and elegant exposition in the philosophy of human movement that I will never attain. There aren't enough years left for me to do that, but if the many Hindus in India are right and reincarnation does exist (in spite of your conviction that such a belief is seminally misconceived), perhaps next time I can aspire to be a philosopher.

     Holly Fairbank: Neither of us knew in the early 1980s that we would meet in China to celebrate my birthday and to celebrate the publication of the excellent thesis you wrote into Chinese. I hope that an English publication will follow soon.

     Richard Stanley-Baker: a new friend and colleague in China. What can I say? Well, in a letter to Thomas Manning in 1810, Charles Lamb wrote, "Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less, as I never think about them," but we did think about them and the experience was fulfilling indeed. Thank you for your paper.

            I'm told that, on an occasion like this, people expect to find out what I think I've done. Some say talk about the future. Others say, "Stick with the past," but I prefer the present. Long ago, I decided that William James was right when he said that by working every day, you "can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find [your]self one of the competent ones of [your] generation, in whatever pursuit [you] may have singled out."4 More to the point for this conference, though, is a statement made by Alfred Steiglitz, the distinguished American photographer, who, looking out of a window in his gallery called An American Place in New York, said, "If what is happening in here cannot stand up to what is happening out there, then what is happening in here has no right to exist. But if what is out there can stand up against what is in here, then what is in here does not need to exist."5

     To paraphrase Steiglitz: if what is happening at this conference can't stand up to what is happening in the world, then what is happening here has no right to exist. On the other hand, if what is happening out there can measure up to what is here, then what is here does not need to exist. Steiglitz's statement was a chal­lenge. To me, it is obvious that what is happening out there does not measure up to what is happening in here. The ideas at this conference not only measure up to the world; it will take several years for those who may be interested to catch up, but that has ever been so in the history of human ideas, hasn't it?

     I wonder, however, if you are aware of what a superb achievement that HKBU and the conference organizers have made. I recall telling students in the anthropology of human movement at New York University in 1980 that if Adrienne Kaeppler, Joann Keali'inohomoku, Anya Royce, and I boarded a plane to go to a conference and the plane crashed and we died, there wouldn't be an anthropology of human movement in the United States.

     I also remember when semasiology was born: it was in May 1976, when I finished the viva voce (oral exam) at Oxford and was about to leave. At that time, no one knew anything about semasiology except me, my supervisor Edwin Ardener, my thesis examiners, and the odd friend or two. I returned home in 1976 in time to celebrate the birth of the United States. Three years later, I taught the first courses in the anthropology of human movement at New York University. A prized possession from that time is this copy of the first issue of JASHM (The Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement) dated Spring 1980. When students asked who would write for it, I said, "You will," and they wrote, and the journal continues to be published. This is the latest issue.

     Now, the essays it contains come from all over the world. As Paul Hockings well knows, having started Visual Anthropology, the publication of a journal of intellectual quality, representing the best work available in the field, is the surest way to achieve respect, stability, and recognition, something that might last for the next hundred years. Professionals in the anthropology of human movement must have a "voice." There has to be a record--desperately needed in a world where books and journals are seen as anachronistic and, sadly, for many, writing consists chiefly of a linguistic excrescence called "text-messaging."

     Keeping the journal alive is a challenge. Keeping the subject alive at the Univer­sity of Illinois is a challenge. Who will edit JASHM in future? Who will teach the anthropology of human movement at the University of Illinois when Brenda retires? Others must answer these questions, for there are books that must be written and things I still must do. To tell you about these, I have chosen other words than my own.

     In my favorite of all poems, Alfred, Lord Tennyson had Ulysses address his aging mariners before they set sail on their last quest:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads---you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


1 Winchester, Simon. 2003. The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Clarendon: Oxford University Press.

2 Farnell, Brenda and Drid Williams. 1990. The Laban Script. Movement-Writing for Non-Dancers [with Workbook]. Canberra, A. C. T.: Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

3 Walt Whitman. Song of Myself, stanza 47, verse 1.

4 James, William. 1950[1890]. Psychology [vol.1]. London: Macmillan. See the chapter 'Habit.'

5 Quotation from a Georgia O'Keeffe interview by Peter Bunnell, June 28, 1979. In Bunnell, Peter. 2006. Inside the Photograph: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography. New York: The Aperture Foundation.



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