Clifford Geertz – historical anthropologist

Every now and again one reads some truly arresting prose. I’ve been reading some the last couple of days in F Inglis, ed., Clifford Geertz: Life Among the Anthros and other essays (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010) – a collection of some of Geertz’s essays from as early as 1967 and as late as 2005 (he died in 2006), published in such places as the New York Review of Books and Dissent.

Geertz was one of the most influential anthropological thinkers of the last half century, developing an approach to the anthropology of culture that he called ‘thick description’ (an idea he borrowed initially from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle). Thick descripion is exactly that: a fulsome description of human behaviour in all its multifarious and complex contexts. It is, in fact, more an interpretation or construction of behaviour – in fact, often, others’ interpretations of behaviour – than it is ‘description’. In the same 1973 essay in which he explored ‘thick description’, he also characterised his understanding of ‘culture’ as ‘essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’. Reflecting a type of speech-act theory that has also animated intellectual history (or the history of political thought) since at least Quentin Skinner and, before him, Wittgenstein, Geertz elaborated further on his concept of culture:

Once human behaviour is seen as … symbolic action – action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies – the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense … The thing to ask is what their import is: what it is, ridicule or challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that, in their occurrence and through their agency, is getting said…

Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse. That is not, of course, its only aim – instruction, amusement, practical counsel … are others … As interworked systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would call symbols), culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly – that is, thickly – described.

(The Interpretation of Cultures, (Fontana, 1993 (1973), pp 5-6, 9-10)

An essay title that particularly caught my eye in the 2010 collection was ‘What Is a State If It Is Not a Sovereign?’ (pp 200-218). A few select quotations:

Whatever directions what is called (in my view, miscalled) “nation building” may take in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Latin America, a mere retracing without the wanderings, the divisions, the breakdowns, and the bloodshed of earlier cases – England, France, or Germany, Russia, the United States, or Japan – is not in the cards, nor is the end in compact and comprehensive identities, hypostatized peoples. History not only does not repeat itself, it does not purge itself, normalize itself, or straighten its course either… (pp 201-202)

The standard characterization of a “state” as (in Max Weber’s formulation) a vested authority possessing a monopoly of legitimate violence in a territory and that of a “nation” as (in Ernest Renan’s) the spiritual fusion of a collection of particular ethnë into a grande solidarité, a common and transcending conscience morale, seem increasingly difficult of application to such tangled conglomerations as these [states in the ‘postcolonial’ world such as India, Indonesia, Nigeria…], where not only is legitimacy dispersed and contested but an enormous catalogue of hybridized and shape-shifting parochialist groups – ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial, regional, ideo-primordial – rub up against one another in almost continuous friction and “the narcissism of small differences” (to use again Freud’s overused phrase) seems the major driving force of political struggle. Compacted sovereignty, centered and inclusive, is hard to locate and rather looks like remaining so. (pp 203-204)

Later in the essay he applies this anthropological vision of state formation more widely to history:

… What is a state if it is not a sovereign? The institutional projection of an ongoing politics, a display, a delineation, a precipitate, a materialization.

The state in Indonesia and Morocco, as in Nigeria and India (or, for that matter, in Canada, Colombia, Belgium, Georgia, or the United States) is less the shadowing forth of a quasi-natural peoplehood, the summarized will and spirit of a pluribus unam nation, neither of which seems more than wishfully or residually to exist, than a rather hurriedly concocted social device designed to give form enough and point to a clatter of crossing desires, contending assumptions, and disparate identities. (p 212)

That might, or might not, be a good description of the New Zealand colony, colonies and tribal polities in the period c 1830-1865. The intent is still to seek out an answer to the question of whether, in this period, a single political society was created or imagined that transcended the various white settlements and tribal polities of these islands – such that the wars of the 1860s can be seen as a ‘civil war’.

(For an obituary of Clifford Geertz in the New York Times, see here.)