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1 “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, 1 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 2 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology also the version posted on Blackboard. 3 “Thick Description,” p.5. 2 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 4 “Thick Description,” p.28. 3 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. 4 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 5 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? 5 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 6 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 6 “Deep Play,” p.412 “Deep Play,” p. 416 8 “Deep Play,” p. 425 9 “Deep Play,” p.446 10 To give one more example uncritical circularity and essentialism: “Bali, mainly because it is Bali, is a well studied place.”(“Deep Play,” p.417) 7 7 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 11 12 “Deep Play,” p. 416. “Deep Play,” p. 416. 8 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. 13 14 “Deep Play,” p.414. “Deep Play,” p. 442 9 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.