A cure for catatonia

Clifford Geertz
December 15, 2000

It is a relief to be able to look back on the 1980s in anthropology, a decade in which the discipline virtually "theorised itself into catatonia". Ironically (or not), this was also the decade in which Clifford Geertz produced some of his best work, including a slim but stunning volume of anthropological literary criticism entitled Works and Lives .

This book was Geertz's assessment of the old masters of anthropology - Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, Benedict, Mead - all of whom (though the women interestingly less so than the men) were at the time considered quite démodé . It was a fond, funny, clear-eyed book that managed to take in the sweep of classical anthropology and attend minutely to the form of ach ethnographer's style, the kind of work that demonstrates precisely what can be done with close reading and how satisfactory are the generalisations that arise from a study of details.

"Style", writes Fred Inglis, "is always the man". And if Geertz is now worthy of a volume in Polity's Key Contemporary Thinkers series, along with such luminaries as Chomsky, Foucault, Derrida and Barthes, it is at least in part because his own style is so deft and compelling. In an era of pinched and anxious prose and uncertain speaking positions, Geertz consistently comes across as a writer with both gaiety and nerve. "One of the most bracing aspects" of his oeuvre, writes Inglis, "is the continuous and unmistakeable sense the reader has of authorial authority." It is a kind of authority, however, not to be confused with that of his predecessors, the grand theoreticians of function and structure.  Throughout his career Geertz has focused on the actual, the local and the manifest, in the belief that when "theory moves too far away from the event and the experience represented in interpretation it becomes either vacuous or sterile". The most famous of his "thick descriptions" (a term he borrowed from Gilbert Ryle) are those from his ethnographic work in Indonesia, particularly his account of the complex web of signification embodied in the Balinese cockfight.  For Geertz, writes Inglis, the values and symbols that matter are the "rare, rich, brew of belief, custom, falsehood and reasonableness from which men and women selected interpretative or heuristic instruments as best they could and according to their knowledge of how to look out for and to use luck along with the instruments, in order to get through life without its being too awful". Or, the actual forms of life as people live it.

Inglis's Clifford Geertz is not so much a biography of the man as a biography of his thought. It traces Geertz's intellectual heritage from Talcott Parson's department of social relations at Harvard through the University of Chicago's committee for the comparative study of new nations and covers his major publications and periods of fieldwork in Java, Bali and Morocco. A solid, rather lumbering study in places, it nevertheless represents a sympathetic and generous view of Geertz's career. Some of the most interesting moments come in Inglis's account of Geertz's later years, those tumultuous last couple of decades when "his successor generation of anthropologists was… so thrown into panic by Foucault's pendulum that it almost concluded nothing could be said about anything". Geertz, he concludes, "has spent the most recent part of his long career trying to restore their collective nerve".

Like almost everyone of his generation, and certainly everyone who came before, Geertz has been accused of chauvinism, ethnocentrism, of "dirty jokes, lousy story-telling, negligence with the evidence, and knowing the Balinese better than the Balinese" - above all of trying to sell a "constructed understanding of the constructed native's constructed point of view". But Geertz, writes Inglis, never pretended to be the Absolute Truth, only to insight, intuition and the capacity of an informed observer to understand at least a part of what lies before his eyes. Well before postmodernism had come to dominate the thinking in the humanities and social sciences, it was axiomatic with Geertz "how refracted and unabsolute truths are, how partial impartiality, how subjective objectivity". This for him, was not only a methodological issue but also a moral one. "Comprehending that which is… alien to us," writes Geertz, "is a skill we have arduously to learn, and… work continuously to keep alive."

Christina Thompson is coordinating editor, Harvard Review .


Clifford Geertz: Culture, Custom and Ethics

Author - Fred Inglis
ISBN - 0 7456 2157 0
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 207

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