Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics.  

Princeton University Press, 2000. xvi + 271pp., preface, acknowledgments, index


(by Clifford Geertz)


(book review by Robert C. Ulin, Western Michigan University)



This latest work by Clifford Geertz includes 11 essays that either were originally published as journal articles or were delivered as distinguished lectures. The essays range from a somewhat personal discussion of how Geertz came to pursue anthropology to a lengthy commentary on the ongoing debates between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over understanding the indigenous Other to sympathetic accounts of Thomas Kuhn and the psychologist James Bruner. The essays hold together well in that the themes Geertz raises are consistent with his life project of interpretive anthropology, that is, the elaboration of local meanings while challenging the generally reductive claims of science to identify human laws or universals. Moreover, the essays retain the erudite and conversational styleóeven humorófor which Geertz has become known. Available Light reminds researchers of why, even if we differ with Geertz, he is to be taken seriously.


Chapter 1 takes us back to Geertzís days as a college student and elaborates with vintage wit the ìaccidentalî circumstances that led him to study anthropology at the graduate level without really having much of an understanding of what anthropologists do. Geertz was mentored at Antioch in the early 1950s by a philosophy professor, who encouraged him to pursue anthropology at Harvardís innovative (now defunct) Department of Social Relations, where he would come to have contact with visionaries such as Talcott Parsons, Jerome Bruner, David Schneider, Wilbert Moore, and Pitirim Sorokin. Geertz relates that he entered academia in the best of times, viewed against the corporate university of today, but his is nonetheless a curious claim given what many leftist academics and some indigenous anthropologists (e.g., Gene Weltfish) experienced as a consequence of the McCarthy years.


The second chapter addresses the asymmetries of fieldwork in the new states, what Geertz refers to as the ìmoral as ironic.î Geertz has in mind, however, more than the ethical conundrums of fieldwork. Rather, he argues that the social benefits of education, of which an anthropological career is exemplary, and rising expectations more generally falsely contribute to the impression on the part of anthropologists and subjects alike that laudable social goals are attainable in the new states. Geertz concludes, moreover, that the peculiar blending of informant and friend in fieldwork is not, as apologists for positivism claim, problematic but provides an opportunity to examine the types of values implicit in social scientific research.


Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are, in my estimation, the most significant in that they raise classic questions about relativism and understanding the Other, they challenge the formalism of new developments in information technology as models of mind, and they elaborate the Anglo-American rationality debates by making use of the SahlinsñObeyesekere debate to defend ìlocal knowledge.î Geertz argues convincingly that supporting a relativist position does not lead to contrived stereotypesóthe idea that anything goes morallyóthat all too frequently are associated with relativism. Geertz encourages researchers to pay attention to context and not to be drawn into the extremes or false dichotomies of relativism and antirelativism. In fact, Geertz shows the considerable problems of universalistic categories of mind from Jean Piaget to Claude LÈvi-Strauss to Robert Edgertonís psychological anthropology. Perhaps most compelling of all is Geertzís discussion of Sahlinsís and Obeyesekereís views of the fate of Captain Cook in the Hawaiian islands. One might anticipate that Geertzóthe contextualistówould be more sympathetic to Obeyesekere, given that Obeyesekere challenges Sahlinsís contention that the structural prefiguration of local culture prevented indigenous Hawaiians from identifying Captain Cook as a European entrepreneur. Geertz, however, has great respect for Sahlinsís knowledge of indigenous Hawaiian culture, which in the end leads to his giving the ìslight edgeî to Sahlins over Obeyesekere. This outcome is less surprising once one recognizes the ìtextualî formalism of Geertzís interpretive method, inclusive of the critical structural moment that he borrows from Paul Ricoeur. Chapter 5 on ìThe State of the Artî ends with a listing of the virtues and limits of local knowledge and Geertzís contention, against empty universal assertions, that the point of the human sciences is to ìclarify what on earth is going on among various peoples at various times while drawing some conclusions about constraints, causes, hopes and possibilitiesóthe practicalities of lifeî (p.139).


The remainder of the book takes readers through Geertzís views on Charles Taylor, Thomas Kuhn, Bruner, and, finally, to what amounts to a vision of culture and the particularities of life in the context of global fragmentation. Nevertheless, in spite of the intelligence and wit that Geertz brings to a range of topics that always center on the various themes of local knowledge, I suspect that some readers will remain dissatisfiedóas some have been with earlier Geertz worksówith his reluctance to take up culture as contested, as an arena of public debate. That is, from Geertzís nostalgic view of the academy to his presumptions of shared culture, in the sense of shared meaning, the positioningóhistorical, cultural, political, and otherwiseóof both anthropologist and informants is largely ignored. Consequently, the issue of power is never really foregrounded, which leaves many of the pressing issues of doing anthropology in the context of global capitalism insufficiently addressed. With these limitations in mind, one will find this work, like many of Geertzís previous works, to be thought provoking, intelligent, and well written.




in: American Ethnologist Volume 31 Number 3 August 2004

online: http://www.aaanet.org/aes/bkreviews/result_print.cfm?bk_id=1374


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