October 2, 1938–September 10, 2018
Roy Wagner, a visionary cultural anthropologist who inspired many with his intellectually adventuresome studies of kinship, ritual, myth, creativity, and symbolic power, died on September 10, 2018, at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. His New Guinea research, wide reading, and lifelong interests in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, classical music, and poetry were woven into many publications including The Invention of Culture (1975), Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion (1972), Lethal Speech: Daribi Myth as Symbolic Obviation (1978), Asiwinarong: Ethos, Image, and Social Power among the Usen Barok of New Ireland (1986), Symbols That Stand for Themselves (1986), An Anthropology of the Subject: Holographic Worldview in New Guinea and Its Meaning and Significance for the World of Anthropology (2001), Coyote Anthropology (2010), and The Logic of Invention (2018).
Born in 1938, Wagner grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where his father was a detective and city police chief. He majored in Medieval History at Harvard, then studied anthropology at the University of Chicago under David Schneider, receiving his PhD in 1966. He did fieldwork in the New Guinea Highlands among the Daribi of Mt. Karimui in 1963–1965, 1968–1969, and 2000; and in New Ireland among the Usen Barok in 1979–1980 and 1983. He taught at Southern Illinois University (1966–1968), Northwestern University (1968–1974), and at the University of Virginia (1974–2018).
Wagner’s first book, The Curse of Souw: Principles of Daribi Clan Definition and Alliance in New Guinea (1967), and his essay “Are There Social Groups in the New Guinea Highlands?” (1974), offered radical critiques of Africa-derived concepts which anthropologists had previously used to understand New Guinea kinship, establishing our current understanding that Melanesian kin groups are brought into being through creative acts like sharing and giving food.
Wagner’s later writings explore the manipulation of cultural symbols, with a focus on how adept individuals use symbols to generate social power in myth, magic, dream-visions, and ritual. He was fascinated by metaphor and how symbols substitute as readily for other symbols (and constellations of symbols) as they do for real things, collapsing the difference between reality and its representation and allowing meanings to proliferate in a limitless process of creative invention. Wagner developed a method of myth interpretation called “obviation,” in which he identified triangular constellations of symbols that both resemble and complement one another, then linked them in chains of substitution that unmask and extend the inventive meaning-making of the myth text itself.
Wagner loved exploring shifts of perspective involving transposition, projection, reflection, fractal recursivity, and figure-ground reversal. He also loved tricksters and was himself an intellectual trickster who reveled in transgressing beyond the boundaries of ordinary sense into a beguiling terrain of fantastic paradoxes, analytical knots, and shamanistic marvels that humble reason. For four decades at the University of Virginia he taught popular undergraduate courses about the works of Carlos Castaneda, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ursula LeGuin. He was teaching classes on “Fantasy and Social Values” and “Mythodology” at the time he passed away. He is sadly missed by generations of students, colleagues, and many readers worldwide. (Ira Bashkow)
Cite as: Bashkow, Ira. 2019. “Roy Wagner.” Anthropology News website, April 16, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1150