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.
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)
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)