Commemorative Lectures by Recipients

Clifford GEERTZ

Ladies and Gentlemen. lt is an enormous pleasure and an indescribable honor to be standing here before so distinguished an audience, having been awarded, American that I am, an Asian cultural prize by the citizens of a great and ancient Asian society. Indeed, it is so much so that it causes me immediately to reflect upon how it is so remarkable a thing could ever have happened. It is a very long way, and not just in physical distance, from a small, quite provincial village of perhaps four hundred persons in northern California where I grew up in the years just before the second world war to the stage of an energetic, marvellously cosmopolitan city in the southern reaches of Japan sixty years further on. Certainly no one there, and even more certainly not myself, would then have been able even to imagine such a thing, much less predict it. The course that has brought me here is a miniature version, in many ways, of the wagrant and explosive history of the past sixly years. We are all, I suppose, to some extent, children of our times. But it sometimes seems to me that I have rather overdone it.

Those days of my youth were of course spent in the shadow of the coming of the war that would shatter forever the isolationism, the self satisfaction, and the inward-turning of both our countries. Every place else seemed, in those days, both extremely far away and getting, day by day, closer and closer. I think we all knew, as young as we were, that we were destined to live in a much more complicated, difficult, and exciting world than that we saw around us, and the sense of that colored our lives even as we remained enclosed in the familiar and reassuring world of quiet farms and quieter forests. I was fifteen when the war broke out (the news was flashed on the screen in a nearby rnovie house in the midst of a Charlie Chaplin picture) and within two years I was in the American navy, sailing in the Pacific, I'm afraid toward Japan, about which i knew absolutely nothing of any specificity at all except that I was supposed to fight against it. The war ended the week before my ship was scheduled to enter combat and we put about and headed back to California, but the sense that a threshold had been crossed, that the simplicities of belonging in one place, to one society, to one culture, were lost forever, was very strong. As soon as I was discharged, I left California, more or less forever (I have only lately been back, usually enroute to Asia), and started to seek out, as a scholar rather than a warrior, that large and various world that had come crashing in on my little one.

My first opportunity to do that in a direct and concrete way came in 1951 while I was a graduate student at Harvard University studying anthropology. A team was formed, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and under the joint auspices of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Tecbnology, to spend two years or so studying a small town and the villages around it in Java, which, as part of the Republic of Indonesia, had just the previous year becmme officially independent. The team was multisisciplinary, consisting of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, linguists, and historians - some nine people in all - and I and my then wife, also an anthropologist, were asked to join it. I was to study religion, which for Java meant an incredibly rich amalgam of Hinduism, Buddhism, animism, Christianity, and Islam.

I spent the two years living with the family of a railroad worker - him, his peasant wife, their recently divorced daughter, the daughter's infant son - in their small bamboo house in a village at the edge of town, drawn into its everyday life with great force. We, my wife and l, lived the everyday life of the place, going to marriages, births, circumcisions, and funerals, sitting about in rice fields, marketplaces, stores, and coffee shops, and talking to everyone we could find about what they thought and felt, and now that they were free what they hoped for. Those months sailing idly about in the central Pacific aside, it was the first time I had ever been outside the United States, but it felt, oddly, much less foreign, especially as time wore on, than l expected. l was foreign, of course. But l was not treated as an alien presence. I was infolded into local society as though I somehow belonged there, different perhaps, and a bit dense about things even fools and children understood, but a person for all that, and not totally useless. Eastern Java and Northern California were not that completely discontinous after all, and a forty year education in things Asian was well begun, and is still going on, even to this week in Fukuoka - an education that has shaped my life and my perceptions in ways l do not, even now, know how to begin to describe.

ln any case, l have in the interim been back on many occasions to lndonesia, both to Java and to various other parts of the archipelago, conducting studies similar to the one I have just described, as well as visiting a number of other Asian countries - Chine, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines - rather more briefly. (ln 1984 I spent more than a month in Japan as a John D. Rockefeller llI fellow of the Japan Society's lntellectual Exchange Program, journeying to Kyoto and Osaka, to Shikoku, and to the Noto Peninsula, but not alas getting to Kyushu, and I have stopped for shorter visits, usually en route to Indonesia, several times, beginning in the 1950s.) One result of all this has been of course my writings on the various subjects ranging from agricultural change, through the actualities of lslam, to traditional state formation. But, what is surely more important, all this ultimate and intensive contact with other peoples and other cultures (and with tne vast and international scholarship on them) over some four decades has led to some by now reasonably settled ideas about Asian Cultures and the study of it.

The first of these settled ideas of mine is one that was stressed in their commemorative lectures last year by my colleagues and long time personal friends, Professors Chie Nakane and Taufik Abdullah: namely, that "Asia" is not one massive, homogeneous thing, a great uniforrn block of thought and culture, but a marvellously variegated collection of languages, religions, customs, moralities - ways, as Heidegger would put it, of being in the world; forms, as Wittgenstein would put it, of life.

The extraordinary diversity of Asia - think of Tibet and Sri Lanka, Korea and Cambodia, India and China, Indonesia and Japan, Myanmar and the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, Singapore and Viet Nam, not to speak of the international diversities I learned to appreciate in so archipelagic a place as lndonesia - is not something to be regretted and effaced. It is something to be prized and cultivated. Difference does not necessarily spell opposition or enmity. Recognized and understood it caII spell the deepest sort of friendship and unity. Any attempt, either intellectually or politically, to fasten a general identity upon Asia (or indeed, as the recent history Eastern Europe demonstrates, upon any region of the world) leads not to harmony and mutual understanding but to discord, smouldering resentment, and the radical, even violent, deepening of the desire to be seen and accepted for what one is.

Asian culture, like all culture, is a deeply various thing and if the grander unity of humanity is to be reached, as the Fukuoka enterrise is so admirably and creatively attempting to do, it will be by the sort of larger - and deeper - cosmopolitanism that enterprise represents, one which appreciates and celebrates variety, not by an effort to reduce it to some artificial common denominator.

My second settled idea follows from the first - the most effective way to study and understand Asia is in comparative terms. Deep going researches into particular traditions are, off course, not only necessary, but the foundation of any useful effort at more broadly cast comparisons. But if it is true anywhere, it is true for Asia that to be acquainted simply with one culture, one history, one country is to be severely limited in one's understanding even of that culture, history, or country. The variety that is Asia means that it is only by looking back and forth between one place and time to another, by juxtaposing forms of life and ways of being in the world in such a way that they cast a reciprocal light on one another. that a three-dimensional vision of such forms and ways can be acquired. He who knows only Shiraz, it has been famously said, knows not Shiraz.

Nor need such comparisons be entirely confined to Asia. In my own case, shifting my focus for awhile to North Africa and Morocco in the mid-1960s, when the upheavals in Indonesia made work there difficult, gave me a perspective on Asia I should not otherwise have had. I learned more about Java and Bali by going for awhile to Morocoo than I would have by going directly back to Java and Bali. And I learned more about lslam by seeing such strikingly different expressions of it - Indonesia's rather inward, speculative version, Moroccos more severe and pragmatical version - than I should have had I seen only one. Reachingout is. quite simply, the most effective way of reaching in.

Thirdly, and as a direct deduction from my first two points, it is necesssary - so it seems to me after having spent nearly half my adult life outside my own homeland, a guest of one or another country or community - for all societies, Asian and non-Asian, to be thoroughly open to one another. Japan has, of course, had a long tradition of being quite enclosed upon itself, a tradition that first began to be altered in 1868 and has been even more dramatically transformed since 1945, and nowhere more than in Kyushu where an eager and generous openness to the out-side world, and most particularly to the rest of Asia, is of course symbolized in these award certemonies tonight. Isolation is simply no longer a reasonable policy for any country anywhere, as even that great continental nation, Russia, is now, at length, so painfully learning. For a great island nation, perched on the rim of vastest continent, it is not even any longer imaginable.

So far as my own country is concerned , it has always been to a significant extent open to the world at large, even in its most isolationist and xenophobic periods, having been largely constructed by immigration, voluntary or forced, hopeful or desperately, from foreign shores. But it has not always been very adept at acommodating the internal diversity such immigration has produced nor so effective in utilizing it to invigorate its relations with other countries. The urban violence that has so marked it in recent years, as well as the racism that has driven so much of that violence, is but one example of its failures in this regard, failures wichh have become, now that a new wave of immigrants from Latin America, from Asia, and from Africa and the Middle East has begun to break upon our shores, a very grave, it could be mortal, problem, both internally and in our relatlons with others.

A relatively homogeneous island country (though not, perhaps, so homogeneous as it sometimes imagines) and a quite heterogeneous continental one (though not, perhaps, so cognizant of that heterogenity or so accepting of it as it should be) ought to have something to offer one another, out again of their very difference, concerning this issue of openness, of permeability to outside influences and connection to outside realities. In any case, my profession, cultural anthropology, is generally dedicated to making such intercourse among peoples easier and more enlightened, as indeed, of course, are the Fukuoka cultural prizes. A new cosmopolitanism, one which takes differences seriously and respectfully and yet seeks to connect them into larger webs of mutual comprehensjon is surely a goal alI of us - scholars and artists, cultural figures and political leaders, businessmen and working people - should strive for, both within our several nations and among them.

Finally, the fourthl conviction to which my studies, as various and broadly focused as they bave been, have led me, is that a static, typological approach to the understanding of other peoples, an approach which freezes them into a timeless culture, a fixed national character, an unchanging society, or an immutable view of the world leads not to knowledge and appreciation of other ways of life, but to mythology, prejudice, simple-mindedness, and that curious sort of blindness that sees others as incapable of being reasoned with but merely manipulated, outsmarted, deceived, or coerced. The stress on differences that I have been emphasizing can very easily turn into the worst sort of stereotyping, the sort that neglects the primary fact about all human beings, all human societies, and alI human cultures: namely, that they are forever and everywhere constantly in change. We are prisoners of neither our customs nor our pasts, and if we need, as we do need, to understand culture and history, it is not to bind ourselves to them, like prisoners in a silken cage, but to see them as dynamic, moving forces in our lives - spurs to our future, not determinants of it.

Working in Asia for as long and as continuously as I have at a period in history when social transformations have been as numerous, as vast and as dramatic as they have been - the anti-colonialist struggles in South and Southeast Asia, the Chinese revolution, the renaissance of Japan - have made any notion of "the eternal, unchanging East" seem comic. The Indonesia that I encountered in 1951, the first year of its independence as a struggling sovereign Republic trying to discover its identity, define its purpose, and find its way, and the Indonesia I know today as a confident, consequential force not only in Southeast Asia but in the world generally, are quite clearly so radically different as to put out of my mind forever any hopes I might have had for conclusive understanding. Scholarsbip on Asia, both by Asians and by non-Asians, must itself be flexible and open to the new as the new appears, not caught in a set of received ideas or inherited theories. Much of the excitement of studying Asian culture and society comes from knowing that whatever you think you know will very soon stand in need of correction and revision, of being oneself part of the changes one is trying to describe and explain. It is no occupation for the fixed of mind.

I consider myself, in any case, to have been unaccountably blessed to have been allowed, by whomever it is who allows such things, to spend much of my adult live in Asia, trying to understand Asia, trying to communicate that understanding to others, and trying to come to terms with the' fact that whatever understanding I may have achieved is fragile and temporary, a mere skjttring across the surface of matters so deep and intricate as to escape all categories and defeat all theories.

For in the end it has been the experience, not the conclusions, that has mattered: the experience of living in Asia, of speaking Asian languages, of having Asian friends, and of having feared Asian fears and hoped Asian hopes. There are not many poople, after all, so fortunate as to have their work so intensely shape the inner formation of their lives as mine has shaped mine. To receive a prize for having been thus blessed is an astonishing thing. I am extraordinarily grateful, and accept it not as a merely personal recognition, but as a token of the expectation, and the determination, that the world in general, and Asia in particular, will become more and more open to the sort of cultural boundary crossing it has been designed to celebrate.

I am indeed most honored. Thank you very much.


Commemorative lectures by recipients: Clifford Geertz, in: The 3rd Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes 1992: prize presentation ceremony. Fukuoka-City/JAP 1992: The Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes, pp. 25, 27, 29, 31, 33


source: The Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes (hardcopy sent by Tomiko Uchino); scanned by Ingo Moerth


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