Short thoughts from Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and he succeeded remarkably well in bridging the gap between the university and the public in many of his “postings.”  (I think of these contributions as a pre-web version of a blog.)  Many of these contributions are collected in a superb recent volume, Life among the Anthros and Other Essays, edited by Fred Inglis.  These range from his first contribution to NYRB in 1967, “Under the Mosquito Net,” on Malinowski, to his last in 2005, “Very Bad News,” a review of Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Richard Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response.  A common theme across the essays is the often surprising and sometimes comic misunderstandings that have occurred across major geo-cultural cleavages, including especially the west and Islam.

Geertz had a splendid eye for making sense of ideas and meanings — pulling out the figure from the ground.  Here are a few lines on the significance of Foucault:

Foucault’s leading ideas are not in themselves all that complex; just unusually difficult to render plausible.  The most prominent of them, and the one for which he has drawn the most attention, is that history is not a continuity, one thing growing organically out of the last and into the next, like the chapters in some nineteenth-century romance.  It is a series of radical discontinuities, ruptures, breaks, each of which involves a wholly novel mutation in the possibilities for human observation, thought, and action….  Under whatever label, they are to be dealt with “archaeologically,”  That is, they are first to be characterized acording to the rules determining what kinds of perception and experience can exist within their limits, what can be seen, said, performed, and thought in the conceptual domain they define.  That done, they are then to be put into a pure series, a genealogical sequence in which what is shown is not how one has given causal rise to another but how one has formed itself in the space left vacant by another, ultimately covering it over with new realities.  The past is not prologue, like the discrete strata of Schliemann’s site, it is a mere succession of buried presents. (“Stir Crazy,” 1978, 30)

This is a very concise, insightful statement of Foucault’s position, and certainly more understandable than any particular stretch of The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language.

Or consider a key and enduring topic for Geertz: the difficulties that intrude on gaining a single, consistent, and fact-based representation of another culture.  “In Search of North Africa” was published in NYRB in 1971, and poses many of the questions of plural interpretation and perspective that are hallmarks of Geertz’s own meta-view of ethnography.  

Academic monographs, social realism documentaries, and belletristic essays compete to develop a representational form in which Maghrebi society can be caught and communicated.  The first result of the dawning realization that though society doubtless exists independently of the activity of sociologists, sociology does not, is a proliferation of genres.  The second, still so faint as to be scarcely visible, is the development of the sort of radically experimental attitude toward modes of representation that set in so much earlier elsewhere in modern culture. (62)

Here Geertz raises the questions of objectivity and perspective that are unavoidable in the human sciences.  “The document makers [of films and books] are, if anything, even more bound to the notion that social reality is presented to them directly and that the main thing is to look at it with sufficient care and the appropriate attitude.”  But, Geertz suggests, the relationships between social reality, representation, and knowledge are more complicated than this.

Here is one reason why the simplistic realism of the documentarian won’t work: 

North Africa doesn’t even divide into institutions.  The reason Maghrebi society is so hard to get into focus and keep there is that it is a vast collection of coteries.  It is not blocked out into large, well-orgaized, permanent groupings — parties, classes, tribes, races — engaged in a long-term struggle for ascendancy. It is not dominated by tightly knit bureaucracies concentrating and managing social power; not driven by grand ideological movements seeking to transform the rules of the game; not immobilized by a hardened cake of custom locking men into fixed systems of rights and duties. (63)

Or, in other words, the business of choosing a conceptual scheme and then applying it objectively to Maghrebi society is doomed from the start; the social activities, groupings, and transactions themselves are fluid and ever-changing.  “Structure after structure — family, village, clan, class, sect, army, party, elite, state — turns out, when more narrowly looked at, to be an ad hoc constellation of miniature systems of power, a cloud of unstable micro-politics, which compete, ally, gather strength, and, very soon, overextended, fragment again” (63). (This perspective converges closely with the ideas offered in the plasticity and heterogeneity threads here.)

And what about catastrophe?  Geertz takes up Jared Diamond and Richard Posner in one of his last contributions to NYRB in 2005.  Geertz acknowledges the bad news all around us, when it comes to the ways in which human society seems to be capable of destroying itself through its own activities.  But he has a bone to pick with both of them: they really don’t get down into the sociology, the psychology, and the cultural frames of the people who make up our modern societies.  And yet these contextual, local details matter enormously in how a group responds to catastrophe. Here is Geertz’s critique of both Diamond and Posner:

What is most striking about both Diamond’s and Posner’s views of human behavior is how sociologically think and how lacking in psychological depth they are.  Neither the one, who seems to regard societies as collective persons, minded super-beings intending, deciding, acting, choosing, nor the other, for whom there are only goal-seeking individuals, perceiving and calculating rational actors not always rational, has very much to say about the social and cultural contexts in which their disasters unfold.  Either heedless and profligate populations “blunder” or “stumble” their way into self-destruction or strategizing utility maximizers fail to appreciate the true dimensions of the problems they face.  What happens to them happens in locales and settings, not in culturally and politically configurated life-worlds–singular situations, immediate occasions, particular circumstances. But it is within such life-worlds, situations, occasions, circumstances, that calamity, when it occurs, takes intelligible shape, and it is that shape that determines both the response to it and the effects that it has. (165)

In a word, Geertz puts it forward that even our largest concerns about our social futures require the kind of detailed, meaning-inflected and locally specific understandings that a certain kind of ethnographic imagination brings forward.  We need “local knowledge” to navigate a global future.

This volume is a great example of the role that a certain kind of publishing can play in our intellectual lives: capturing and refreshing the insights of thinkers and observers over a period of decades.  Geertz’s ideas in this volume were the product of his evolving mind from the sixties to the end of his life; and it is enormously stimulating to keep that long evolution in front of our minds as we grapple with our own issues and innovations.  We tend to think only of the most recent ideas and contributions as “cutting edge”; but there is a hugely important dimension of historical depth that we can discover by returning to the insights of earlier generations.

(See an earlier post on Robert Darnton that illustrates another important intellectual corpus laid out in the pages of decades of the NYRB.  The image above is, of course, a photo of a Balinese cockfight, one of Geertz’s ethnographic icons.)

One Reply to “Short thoughts from Clifford Geertz”

  1. His criticism of Diamond and Posner strike me as being technically valid, but somewhat beside the points.He knocks some holes in their logical constructs (the individual article can be found on line as a pdf) but I think is somewhat beside the point in their (granted)polemic arguments.It is like saying that global warming advocates were incorrect or fudged some of their data. It certainly wins you debating points, but doesn't help you in the greater scheme if they wind up being correct none-the-less.The Nature of Diamond and Posner's' arguments are such that you have somewhat a duty to see if you can make (or find) a better argument for their case, because the serious nature of the consequences they warn of.There are a number of people who make better arguments along the line of Diamond: Tainter, J. A. Goldstone, Peter Turchin come to mind. Posner, I am less familiar with, but it strikes me that Taleb of "The Black Swan" is somewhat in the same territory.


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