Download Printable version

yes no Was this document useful for you?
   Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the workof artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Document related concepts

Cross-cultural differences in decision-making wikipedia , lookup

Ethnography wikipedia , lookup

Dual inheritance theory wikipedia , lookup

Evolutionary archaeology wikipedia , lookup

Cultural relativism wikipedia , lookup

American anthropology wikipedia , lookup

Political economy in anthropology wikipedia , lookup

Cultural ecology wikipedia , lookup

Intercultural competence wikipedia , lookup

Cultural anthropology wikipedia , lookup

Ethnoscience wikipedia , lookup

“A Christian, a Muslim and a Jew Walk into a Bar”: The Geertzian Theory of Culture
Robert Penner
In the following paper I shall offer some brief observations on Geertz’s
methodology and histheory of culture. My primary sources for these observations will be
the essays “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” and “Deep
Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” 1 My approach to these sources will be informed
by the central intuition of historical materialism as explicated in The German Ideology.
That intuition is that human history is always the history of individuals who have
organized themselves into communities in such a way as to insure their own personal
survival as best they can, and also the survival of their children. 2 In such a view the
manner in which people keep themselves alive is fundamental to the project of
understanding human behavior. All behavior – political, economic or cultural – is
contingent on the production of subsistence and the reproduction of society. My goal in
this exercise is to determine what the ideological ramifications of the Geertzian project
might be, and to what degree his method might be separated from his theory.
In “Thick Description” Geertz argues for a concept of culture that is defined in
semiotic terms. He defines ‘man’ as:
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 but an interpretive one in search of meaning. 3
Culture in this view is a field comprised of language and behavior that surrounds the
individual. It can also be located in a certain types of cultural artifacts such as ritual,
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” “Deep Play: Notes on
the Balinese Cockfight,” both from the version of The Interpretation of Cultures posted on Blackboard
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology also the version posted on Blackboard.
“Thick Description,” p.5.
myth, and art – artifacts which contain meaning for the anthropologist to unpack. The
central task of anthropologist, or ethnographer, for Geertz is not so much to gather
cultural data, as it is to interpret cultural phenomena as if such phenomena were texts
stored in an archive.
Geertz provides such a ‘text’ in his essay and shows just how the process of
interpretation proceeds. The text he uses is drawn from his old field notes and is
presented by him as a narrative of cultural misunderstanding. He relates the story of a
Moroccan Jew who is robbed by Berbers, seeks justice first from the French colonial
authorities who reject his claims, then from the local sheik who gets him his
compensation in the form of sheep, and is finally imprisoned and robbed of that
compensation by the French. For Geertz the story illustrates how the “different frames of
meaning” that different types of people use can generate conflict when they come into
contact with each other. 4
Geertz gives the process he uses to analyze the story the label of “thick
description.” It is the detailed description of both what is going on in any given event
and, importantly, the meaning participants in the action give to what is going on. What
“thick description” is not, is contextualization; the anthropologist is not interested in what
is going on around the event, in what the hidden meanings of an event are, in what
happened before the event, or in what happened after the event. It follows that such
analysis will not be able to account for how culture might change over time, or what the
role of non-cultural factors such as sheep and prisons might be in the production of
culture. “Thick description” is concerned only with how meaning is construed, and so
“Thick Description,” p.28.
long as it is just one of a number of approaches available to the scholar, such narrowness
of focus may be recognized and compensated for by the use of other methods.
As an experimental postulate Geertz’ theory of culture and interpretation seems
potentially useful to any scholar of human behavior, regardless of methodological (or
ideological) stripe. The most obvious benefit of his approach is that the analyst treats
culture as ‘the thing itself,’ and is not pre-occupied with trying to look ‘through’ culture
at something lying behind it – say economics, or political interest, or an oedipal triangle.
But is culture simply an analytic category for Geertz? When he makes the claim that the
anthropologist by definition does not care about the “sheep as such,” presumably because
they are merely a variable in an interpretive algebra, the deficiencies of his method take
on significant theoretical and ideological import.
Perhaps the reason Geertz would like to ignore the ruminating quadrupeds is
simply that he prefers to live exclusively in a symbolic universe where M. Bovary and
Beethoven quartets are as pertinent to the analysis of intercultural violence as bleating
sheep, or the bodies of executed Berbers and murdered Jews. While sheep and bodies
can be reduced to semiotic figures in an interpretation of cultural misunderstanding it is, I
am sure, distressing to finish your analysis and find them still there, cluttering up your
office at the Institute for Advanced Study, with their rank corporeality and their
uncomfortable, unasked questions about the role of economics and power and
imperialism in acts of frontier robbery. But more important then the reasons Geertz
ignores property and violence are the practical questions of how he goes about keeping
the sheep out of his office, and what the consequences of that exclusion are.
The answer to the first question is that Geertz plays a befuddling shell game with
theory and method, in which the analytic category “culture as text” becomes the
ontological statement “culture is text.” The confusion begins when Geertz makes the
argument that the ethnographer is not defined by the fact that he gathers data on human
behavior, but by the fact that he engages in “thick description.” 5 If anthropology is the
study of culture (see “Thick Description,” p.4) and “thick description” the essential
method of anthropology (see “Thick Description,” p. 9-10) then culture is text. That
Geertz continues to insist on a distinction between anthropological method and
anthropological theory after he has conflated the two in his definition of ethnography
creates the illusion that whatever claims he makes about culture are the product of praxis,
and not the assumptions of doxa. But he has conflated the two and the primary
consequence of this method/theory shell game is circularity: when I treat culture as text it
behaves like text therefore culture is text. To turn his bon mot against him “thick
description” as he frames it in this essay turns out to be theory all the way down. The
secondary consequence of the shell game is that Geertz’ assumptions about the radical
distinction between history and culture produce claims that could be made to support
essentializingarguments about ethnicity – Jews behave a certain way because they follow
a Jewish text, Arabs an Arab text, and Frenchman a French.
Geertz’ conclusion, for instance, that the Jewish peddler, the Berber warrior, and
the French proconsul have “different frames of meaning,” is determined at least to some
degree by the way he introduces them into his story as a Jewish peddler, a Berber warrior
and a French proconsul rather then as, for instance, individuals sharing an interest in
A formulation that begs the question, if it isn’t the data the what is the difference is between an
anthropologist and a literary critic or a theologian?
accumulating sheep. The narrative begins with cultural types (read: clichés) already in
place: the cunning Jew, the Arab thief, and the oblivious European colonist. What is
important about them to Geertz is not shared humanity but cultural difference. His theory
depends on their cultural difference in the same way such difference is crucial to the
punch line of racist jokes. Violence between the French and the Moroccans, or between
Arab and Jew, is explained by an argument about mutual incomprehensibility rather then
by an analysis of what they have in common: in this instance a shared social, political and
economic field in which they are quite clearly all interacting.
Geertz’ theory of culture essentializes his subjects by defining them as “different
from us,” studying them as “different from us,” and concluding that they are “different
from us.” The banality of such an observation should not distract us from the ideological
consequences of sweeping the sheep and the corpses from the stage of culture and into
the dustbin of history. If conflict on the colonial frontier is due to “cultural difference,”
and not conflict over resources, then the Marxist intuition about the fundamentality of
subsistence in human behavior, or the arguments of radical anti-imperialist resistance
become pointless, and probably dangerous, Western interventions in an alien culture
whose meaning we can guess at but can never know.
To suggest that Geertz’ project is potentially dehumanizing and repressive is a
harsh criticism indeed – even if it is predictable given the expressly Marxist position I
have taken in this paper. But regardless of Geertz’ Orientalist shortcomings one cannot
read an essay such as “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” without conceding
that it is not only a virtuoso display of the technique of “thick description,” it is also
genuinely illuminating and that illumination warrants some comment. Geertz semiotic
move seems to depend on a radical separation of culture from its other contexts. The
anthropologist remains disengaged from what he studies, records it as text, and then
analyzes it paying attention strictly to the meaning the actors give their action, and not
letting the purity of their discourse become contaminated by such irrelevancies as hidden
motives, deceitful informers, and political or economic interest. Read closely however
“Deep Play” turns out to be embedded quite firmly in an economic and political world,
and Geertz’ construction of the cockfight as a pristine cultural drama has cracks enough
in it to fit the thin end the materialist wedge
Take for instance the issue of cultural difference. Through out “Deep Play”
Geertz relentlessly essentializes the Balinese: “Everyone ignored us in the way only the
Balinese do,” 6 “in Bali to be teased is to be accepted,” 7 “the Balinese never do anything
in a simple way,” 8 “the Balinese are shy to the point of obsessiveness,” 9 and so on ad
infinitum. It is important to note that these are not generalizations Geertz is arguing from
data, but claims he introduces into the essay that are used to frame data. As with his
example in the “Thick Description” essay, Geertz begins his analysis with the assumption
that the Balinese are different from him, and that their motivations are alien from his
because they are Balinese. 10
In the anecdote of how he and his wife first entered into the mysterious cultural
world of the Balinese Geertz describes how when they initially arrived in the village they
were isolated and obliquely observed by the community. That isolation – attributed to
“Deep Play,” p.412
“Deep Play,” p. 416
“Deep Play,” p. 425
“Deep Play,” p.446
To give one more example uncritical circularity and essentialism: “Bali, mainly because it is Bali, is a
well studied place.”(“Deep Play,” p.417)
Balinese otherness – was broken when the couple was caught up with the rest of the
villagers in a police raid. Geertz writes how the next morning the village was “a
completely different world for us.” 11 Geertz:
Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid is perhaps not a
generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of
anthropological field work, rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led
to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely
difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate,
inside-view grasp of an aspect of “peasant mentality” that anthropologists
not fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed
authorities normally do not get. 12
Geertz emphasizes the fortuitous or accidental nature of the break-through that the raid
somehow facilitated, but there is another possible interpretation of these events, a more
political interpretation, that relies less on providence.
As Geertz ironically
acknowledges the villagers, despite the impenetrable cultural web in which they were
suspended, knew a great deal more about the Geertzes than the Geertzes knew about
them. They knew in particular that the couple were American professors and the
government had “cleared them” to come and study the villagers. In the light of this
knowledge it seems to me the behavior of the villagers might be better explained not as
cultural uncertainty but as political acumen. The villagers may have been wary of the
Geertzes in the same way they would have been wary of any other representatives of the
intrusive Indonesian state. A wariness likely increased by the fact that the state opposes
some of the very “cultural” phenomenon the Geertzes came to the village to observe. To
make a generalization about human prejudice; if it looks like a nark and sounds like a
nark, well, it is probably a nark. What occurred when the police raided the village can be
“Deep Play,” p. 416.
“Deep Play,” p. 416.
understood not as a moment of cultural solidarity but of political solidarity. Like the
villagers Geertz and his wife were frightened by the police and they fled; it seemed as if
they, like the villagers were not servants of the state but its potential victims. They
appeared the political and social equals of the villagers, and therefore safe.
This political reading of the events is further supported by supplemental examples of the
meaning of the cockfight that Geertz’ thick description provides. Geertz himself
identifies the cockfight as a site of conflict between the forces that hope to modernize
Indonesia, i.e. the state, and those who resist that modernization. The Indonesian elite
see cockfighting as primitive, backward, and unprogressive. The battle over it may not
be systematic, but Geertz makes a cavalier admission that the state is willing to kill to
control it. 13 Despite the speed with which corpses vanish from Geertz’s narrative the
“body” continues to haunt it, and the specter of political murder re-appears in a folk tale.
The political nature of the cockfight it seems is even a part of that most cultural
of cultural phenomenon: the myth. Geertz recounts the tale of a prince whose family was
murdered by “commoners” while he was a way at a cockfight, and who after wreaking
vengeance founded a great Empire. 14 The meaning of such a tale being told in the middle
of Suharto’s suppression of communism could be spun out wonderfully but we simply do
not have time. The crux of my argument is that Geertz’ “thick description” takes him
farther then his theory should allow. He maps out the content of what he calls culture
beautifully and methodically, but along the edges of that map he keeps bumping into
things that do not belong to a purely semiotic universe. Geertz’ failure to acknowledge
that contact is a failure of his theory but not his method.
“Deep Play,” p.414.
“Deep Play,” p. 442
A re-interpretation of the cockfight that examines its political meanings and uses
would not invalidate Geertz’s data, nor his observations on that data, but it would suggest
he cuts his analysis short for largely ideological reasons. Geertz not want to confront the
Indonesian state; he does not want to discuss the relation of Western wealth to a site of
cultural production in the Third World; he does not want to consider that he is exploiting
just another raw resource of Bali and refining it for sale in the American academy; he
does not want to think about how the villagers were tricked into thinking him their ally or
equal. Geertz wants to avoid all that unsightliness, to avoid “the sheep as such,” so he
confines his method and his data in a theory of culture that is immaterial and apolitical.
As I suggested in the beginning of this paper so long as “thick description” and
“culture as text” remain analytic categories they are no better or no worse then any of the
other equipment with which we might wish to stock our historiographical toolbox. But if
they are used exclusively and jealously, with or without ideological intent, they can
hamstring critical thought severely enough that it might well end limping around in an
ever decreasing Geertzean circle, even less relevant to the shadowy world of human
behavior then the sheep as such.