Unabsolute Truths; Clifford Geertz

(including passages from the interview with Clifford Geertz)

in: The New York Times (New York/N.Y./USA: Times Pub.), ISSN 0362-4331, April 9, 1995, Magazine Desk, Late Edition - Final, Section 6, Page 44, Column 1.


Clifford Geertz fidgets on the bright orange couch in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., twirling his horn rims in one hand and staring at the seashells dangling from a foot-high statue of a Dewi-Sri, a Balinese rice goddess, on the coffee table between us. He's reliving a dilemma he faced as a young anthropologist in the field, in a tiny village on Bali at the start of his career in 1957, when his landlord's toddler had a high fever, and Geertz had the only jeep.

"I wanted to take him to the only Western doctor on the island," Geertz says. "The villagers wanted to take him to the local 'curer.' If I take him to the curer, and he dies, I feel bad. If I take him to the doctor, and he dies, they think I killed him."

The 68-year-old Geertz (rhymes with "hurts"), one of America's most influential anthropologists, has been reflecting lately on this kind of cultural clash -- the type of conflict that in the past four decades has gone from being a problem for young anthropologists to being a problem for everybody in a world of immigrants, refugees and the ubiquitous television, bringing news of other people and their strange, even repellent beliefs. Anthropologists, as students of culture, once tried to mediate among inconsistent world views, but now they're locked in their own factional battles. In Geertz's lifetime anthropologists have gone from producing books with titles like "How Natives Think" and "The Sexual Life of Savages" to less-assured-sounding works with titles like the one Geertz chose for a set of autobiographical lectures recently published by Harvard University Press: "After the Fact."

Among the multiple meanings he intended in the title is the suggestion that in the "post-structuralist, post-modernist, post-humanist age," as he puts it, there's no longer one prevailing standard for judging what the facts are -- or, for that matter, what a "fact" is. "All those changes make anthropology much more difficult, but it's also much more interesting," he says. Besides, thanks to "the deprovincialization of the world," Geertz says, "we're going to be in each other's faces more." That means everyone, from middle-class Americans troubled about gay rights or abortion to Thai Buddhists irritated by the religious demands of their country's Muslims, has to confront the irreconcilable gap between "Us" and "Them" -- in other words, what to do about people who can't see the plain truths that you do. "People are going to have to stand for a lot of things they don't like," Geertz says.

This is a very unfashionable view now, when the intellectual vogue is for hard certainties, from the "universal" values celebrated in William Bennett's "Book of Virtues" to the quest for definitive answers on human character in hormones, genes and evolution. Even within his field, Geertz lives in a kind of magisterial isolation. He has done more than any other anthropologist to turn the discipline away from thinking of itself as an objective science; many who believe there are absolute truths about human beings regard him as an anything-goes relativist. Yet to the academics who have embraced post-modernism, Geertz is an old fashioned scholar who refused to walk through the door he helped open. His intellectual style, he says, is to "zig and zag" between alternatives. He makes his points in a compare-and-contrast way that makes admirers think of Henry James and that detractors call "otoh-botoh" -- an acronym for "on the one hand, but on the other hand." He is, in any event, a difficult man to pin down.

Geertz's book-lined office, its sterile white walls decorated with toothy, riotously colored Javanese masks, suggests a tense, unresolved yoking of opposites. So does he. With his unruly white mane and tidy beard framing deep-set blue eyes set in a weathered face, he wouldn't look out of place beside Mark Twain in a daguerreotype. His manner, too, is blunt. When a colleague asked Geertz if he'd recommend his doctor, Geertz replied, "Well, I'm not dead."

But the gruff appearance is deceptive. "Geertz will always be ambivalent," says James Clifford, a professor in the history of consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied the anthropological literature. "That's his great strength." Another way of putting it is that Geertz does not like to make up his mind.

"He doesn't develop an argument in stages," says Robert Darnton, the historian at nearby Princeton University who has taught a course on "the history of mentalities" with Geertz for the last 25 years, and whose book, "The Great Cat Massacre," was much influenced by Geertz's thought. "Instead, he circles around and elaborates. You don't feel like you've gone down a path and come out at a conclusion. Instead you've been taken round and round and you have an orientation, a mode of understanding. His work is open-ended, rather than bottom-lined." Unusually among anthropologists, Geertz has done extensive field work in two very different societies -- Indonesia and Morocco -- and his way of looking for insights into culture is a process of moving from one society to the other, using each as a lens through which to regard the other. "When ingeniously juxtaposed," he writes, cultures "can shed a certain amount of light on one another."

A tendency to oscillate has been reflected in large ways as well as small through a 40-year career. One pole of Geertz's life in anthropology has been "the field" -- life with a notebook among strangers, engaging in what he describes as "the day in, day out, one step forward, one step back, effort to get genuinely close to a handful of people who have no particular reason to get close to you." This is the exotic side of anthropology, where the risks run from misunderstandings and hurt feelings to hepatitis, dysentery and air attacks. (During a rebellion in Sumatra in 1958, Geertz and his wife, Hildred, both seriously ill, fled across the jungle with other refugees from strafing and bombing. They were rescued by a mass of paratroopers, he writes in "After the Fact," "dropping soundlessly from the morning sky.") The other pole has been a series of appointments in academia -- Harvard, the University of Chicago, and finally the Institute for Advanced Study -- where the violence is metaphorical but the emotional bitterness is real. Writing in his new book of the "highly personalized academic politics" of the Institute, Geertz says, "When it comes to immaturity, students are scarcely a patch on professors."

After what he calls a childhood of "Dickensian" deprivation, service in World War II and a college education on the G.I. Bill that he hoped would make him a writer -- "not like you and me but a real writer" -- Geertz and his wife came to anthropology as graduate students in 1950. (They're now divorced.) The discipline then had a lot more confidence in the "science" part of "social science." At Harvard's social relations department in the 1950's, Geertz saw himself as part of "a big-push effort to construct a unified, generalizing science of society from which could emerge a practical technology for the management of human affairs." The mystery of other people's beliefs was to be solved by deducing the objective facts that are true for all people at all times -- that exist, as the English anthropologist Ernest Gellner puts it, "outside of culture." A catch phrase of his graduate education, Geertz recalls, was "social structure is as real as a seashell."

Geertz was uniquely suited to lose faith in such a project. Along with his zigzagging temperament ("I expect to expire without having found any final answers," he says), he was shaped by the philosophy he had studied as an undergraduate at Antioch, in whose light empiricism seemed naive. And when he had got to Indonesia in 1956, there was the messy reality of field work, where "the booming loudspeaker of Harvard seemed a long way off," he writes.

By the mid-1960's, Geertz was in open rebellion against the scientific model for anthropology. The discipline, he said, could not hope to imitate lab science, dissecting cultures to find the general laws that underlay them all. A culture is made up of the meanings people find to make sense of their lives and to guide their acts, and those meanings are inside a culture, not outside it. Cultures were not to be seen through for the objective truths underneath. They had to be entered and understood, like a novel. "Societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations," Geertz wrote in a much-quoted line. "One has only to gain access to them." In his best-selling "Interpretation of Cultures," Geertz wrote that the goal of anthropology should be a "thick description" -- an account that has the knowledge, understanding and empathy to explain that a person contracting an eyelid (as a "thin description" would have it) is actually winking. From German philosophy, Geertz imported the term hermeneutics -- the study of meanings. Anthropology, he insisted, is a hermeneutical discipline.

His work of the late 1960's and 70's was nothing less than a redefinition of what knowledge about other people is for. Rather than an experiment with a definite conclusion, Geertz proposed that the discipline be more like an ongoing seminar: the point would be to improve everyone's mutual understanding. "I think in general there is a belief that the social sciences are a machine that produces answers for politicians to listen to," says Wolf Lepenies, director of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin and a sociologist. "Instead, they should be seen as a process. Cliff was a pathbreaker in that regard."

Historians, philosophers and anthropologists who were suspicious of "the facts" soaked up this work and applied it to their own. "Let me tell you, in the 1970's, things were stagnant in anthropology," says George Marcus, chairman of the anthropology department at Rice University in Houston. "And what filled the gaps was Geertz's hermeneutics. Cliff's work was very attractive. In fact, it didn't have any competitors."

Social scientists less sympathetic to the literary spirit, though, saw Geertz as a presiding spirit of nihilism. A typical attack from the hard-core social scientists came from Ernest Gellner, who says Geertz has encouraged the "metatwaddle" of a fashionable relativism: the idea that every culture's practices, from child sacrifice to clitoridectomy to mutilation for thieves, must get equal respect.

"Look, I think clitoridectomy is a horrible business," Geertz says. "But what are we going to do? Invade the Horn of Africa and arrest everybody? If you're serious about addressing this, you ask people there about the practice and you listen to them. You listen to women from there who justify the practice. You want to change things, you don't start by proclaiming that you possess the truth. That's not very helpful."

Still, as unpopular as Geertz is with those he calls "the hard-liners," he is no more beloved among those in the next generation of anthropologists who -- along with progressive literature scholars -- practice what is now called "cultural studies." Historians and anthropologists like to quote the late French historian Michel Foucault, for whom questions of knowledge about other people always devolved into questions of power over those people. "We were told not to ask leading questions -- as if there is such a thing as a nonleading question," says Vincent Crapanzano, an anthropologist and cultural critic who teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "I used to say, what anthropologists called objective information is just the kind of thing people would say to a creep who was hanging around and wouldn't go away."

Anthropologists of this school have far more doubts than Geertz about the possibility of really understanding other people through the traditional means of anthropology. Crapanzano, for instance, spends as much time teaching comparative literature as he does anthropology. "His popularity is based on a rather complacent tradition of culture and society," says Crapanzano. Geertz may pay lip service to the "problem of the Other," he says, referring to the fears and anxieties stirred up by the confrontation with an alien set of beliefs. But Geertz's interpretations reveal a confidence in objectivity and in his own ability to grasp the essence of other people -- a confidence he could not have if he really put the other culture on an equal footing with his own. "It gives this feeling of, 'Aha, now I know them.' There is this reluctance to pick up on the inherent tensions, the contradictions, the unseemly side of social and cultural reality."

To these scholars, "After the Fact" is just more evidence that Geertz -- whose best-selling books "The Interpretation of Cultures" and "Local Knowledge" laid out an ambitious blueprint for a meaning-centered anthropology -- has fallen now into writing occasional observations. "He was mapping out a theory of culture," says Paul Rabinow, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "Then in the 70's the guy just imploded. He mysteriously stopped in his tracks."

THE "YOUNG TURKS," SOME of whom are former students, are especially incensed that Geertz won't debate the issues they've raised. "He always presents himself in a fashion where he doesn't engage," says Vincent Crapanzano. "He doesn't enter into any kind of dialogue, within the discipline or outside." Geertz's reaction to Crapanzano's name -- "I don't like him. there's a story behind all that, but I'm not going to tell it" -- just seems to confirm the accusation. Even his friends and colleagues agree that for a student of human beings Geertz can be ill at ease around members of the species.

"I remember Margaret Mead saying that meeting a new person for Cliff was like having his skin ripped off," says Rabinow, who was a student of Geertz's at the University of Chicago in the late 1960's. "He's gotten a lot better now, but when I was in graduate school he had no social graces whatsoever."

Geertz and Crapanzano are locked in a bitter academic feud that's personal as well as intellectual. In "Writing Culture," a collection of essays on the anthropologist as writer, Crapanzano contributes by far the fiercest attack on Geertz, lacing with exuberant contempt into Geertz's penchant for listlike sentences. (He calls the Balinese cockfight, for example, "an image, fiction, a model, a metaphor.") "He offers no proof," Crapanzano grouses. "Cockfights are surely cockfights for the Balinese -- and not images, fictions, models and metaphors." Geertz returned the compliment, describing Crapanzano's book about a Moroccan worker as "long, winding passages of bookish meditation" that pretentiously compared his subject to "the dizzier heights of modern European culture." "If the face of the sitter gets a bit difficult to locate in this high-wrought 'portrait,' that of the portraitist seems clear enough," Geertz snickered.

Crapanzano's resentment of what he takes to be Geertz's dismissive attitude toward his intellectual heirs is not unique. When the ideas of the younger anthropologists who wanted to study the ironies of anthropological writing began to circulate, "it could have turned into an interesting debate, but Cliff backed off," says Rabinow. "He doesn't engage, and when you don't engage and yet you retain your power and position, then you're just resting on your intellectual capital. That is called power, not knowledge."

Geertz retorts he was just as interested as he wanted to be, thank you.

"The problem is, whenever I write a book, people say that's what I want everyone to do. But I move on to something else. What I really do is write things, duck when people start throwing things, and then I write something else." He says he finds some of the new theoretical work interesting. "I sympathize with a lot of it. Well, some of it. I'm my usual ambivalent self about it, anyway."

In a characteristically baroque bit of phraseology that annoys both camps, Geertz calls himself an anti-anti-relativist. "I don't believe that to understand is to forgive," he says. "I am not a relativist." But at this epoch in history, he argues, there's more to fear from a naively simple notion of truth than there is from the idea that anything goes. "Understanding what people think doesn't mean you have to think the same thing," he says. "You don't just say 'whatever you do is fine.' Just saying 'it's their culture' doesn't legitimize everything."

To be open to dialogue with other people doesn't mean you don't have any values of your own, Geertz maintains. "I hold democratic values, but I have to recognize that a lot of other people don't hold them. So it doesn't help much to say, 'This is the truth.' That doesn't mean I don't believe anything." The challenge, he argues, is to find a way to keep one's values and identity while living with other values -- values you can neither destroy nor approve. "You can't assert yourself in the world as if nobody else was there. Because this isn't a clash of ideas. There are people attached to those ideas. If you want to live without violence, you have to realize that other people are as real as you are."

Still, Geertz acknowledges that life often enough requires a bottom line, a decision between one set of values and another. After all the rug-pulling, zigzagging and otoh-botoh, somebody has to choose.

Geertz would say that's not the anthropologist's job. His job is simply to facilitate negotiation by making people's belief systems intelligible to each other. For instance, as a scholar of Islam, he has followed a bitter cultural conflict in France involving Muslim schoolgirls who want to attend classes wearing traditional head coverings. Whether they should be allowed to is a decision better made by people who understand Islam and the Muslim world than by those who don't, says Geertz. What would he do? "I'd probably let them wear them," he allows. But he hastily zigs back: "But I'm not French."

It's not surprising to hear the end of Geertz's story about his decision in Bali four decades ago, when the choice for the sick child was between the doctor and the curer. "We went to both," he says. "I think the curer first, just because he was closer. But if both'd been impossible, I would've taken him to the foreign doctor and taken the heat. There are times when you stop being an anthropologist.

"The bottom line was the kid got better. The Belgian doctor didn't know what was wrong with him. The curer did some chants. The fever went away. Nobody knows why."

A version of this article appears in print on , Section 6, Page 44 of the National edition with the headline: Unabsolute Truths; Clifford Geertz.


online source: https://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/09/magazine/unabsolute-truths-clifford-geertz.html

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