[Section: Roundtable: George Stocking and Victorian Anthropology]




(by Clifford Geertz)



George Stocking has had in his dogged and diffident way -- 'scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Stocking?' -- an enormous impact on how anthropologists see themselves and their profession. And it is also clear that there is no compendious and unified way to sum up just what that impact has been. He has clearly turned us around, perhaps several times. But which way, or which ways, are we facing now?


As someone myself rapidly approaching the 'oldest living inhabitant' stage of life, the sort of person field anthropologists always talk to but never believe, the first thing that comes to my mind is the great contrast in the study of the history of anthropology between how it used to be before Stocking and how it is now alter him. People caught up in the immediate present of scholarship -- operating at what has come to be called, in a curiously violent image, the cutting edge -- often have very little sense of how things used to be done, because they have no experience of how things used to be done. They tend to take for granted, to dismiss, as obvious, humdrum ('doesn't everyone?') commonsense, the enormous changes in intellectual conditions that enable them to work as they now so blithely work. They just don't know what it was like to walk five miles to school in the snow.


To take two examples outside of anthropology, but in fields I experienced as an undergraduate major a half century ago, just to indicate the sort of thing I am talking about: consider the advent of the New Criticism in literary studies, and of the analytic turn in philosophy. The New Criticism, now itself attacked for its formalism, aestheticism, technism, and a certain high culture cognoscenti elitism, nevertheless profoundly transformed the 'field' of literature -- if a field, rather than a morass, is what it is. The teaching of literature and its explication that had been in fact either romantic biography about poor Shelley or some other unhappy or unrecognised genius, dumbing-down comparisons of Paradise Lost and Flash Gordon, obsessive philology that was all petrified trees and no forest, amateur social history -- a sort of milktoast marxism -- or perhaps more commonly a rather adolescent enthusiasm as to how altogether wonderful and utterly beyond our comprehension such marvels as Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth or Milton were, changed almost over night into a systematic inquiry into what this or that text meant and how it managed to mean it. Literature professors had, god preserve us, suddenly to read poems intelligently aloud in class, to demonstrate that they had at least some grasp of what they were celebrating -- a test only some of them passed. You had to have been there. Whatever end the revolution eventually came to (close reading beyond the call of duty, a certain political traditionalism), bliss was it then to be alive.


The story in philosophy, the other trade I decided to get out of before I got into it, is similar. The coming of Analytical Philosophy, of which I am no more a simple partisan (or simple enemy) than I am of the New Criticism, put an end to a sort of metaphysical fantasising that plunged one into pointless and endless first principle debates about the one and the many, form and substance, the really real, and the like. As has literature, philosophy has taken many turns since this before-and-after watershed time, even returning in a more workable way to some of the old problems. But the days of tennis with the net down are quite gone, save perhaps at the Heritage Foundation.


The same thing is true in anthropology, to get round at length to the subject. (The other thing the oldest living inhabitant usually is is garrulous.) When I came into anthropology, there was nothing much, or at least nothing much I was made aware of, but practitioner history. This is a genre of which I am exceedingly unfond, not so much because it is inevitably whiggish. (A little whiggishness never hurt anybody: we do know so much more than 'those other guys'. But as Hemingway is supposed to have said when that proposition was put to him, 'Yes, but they are what we know'.) I am unfond of it because it starts with an almost Cartesian, clear and self-evident perception of what anthropology is and what it is not, who is a 'real' anthropologist and who is not, and then produces an arbitrary series of causes, formally but not, for the most part, causally chronological -- A before B, not A leads to B -- to support that idea. Instead of doing what one would think a 'real' historian ought to do -- examine previous scholarship of various kinds, and draw one's notion of what anthropology 'is' from such an inquiry --it works the other way around. It takes a view of what anthropology 'is' and should be and works back from that to find rudimentary, prefigurative examples of it avant la lettre. That is the real sin of 'presentism' -- not the relating of historical inquiry to contemporary concerns, which is both unavoidable and, rightly handled, 'A Good Thing'.


Robert Lowie's History of Ethnological Theory,[1] the book I at least was presented with at Harvard as the story of my adopted past, and which reigned for some years as the standard account, is an excellent example of what I am talking about. (I knew Robert Lowie, incidentally, and both liked and respected him. This is not an attack on his work in general.) It was, of course, practitioner history in spades, written, as most practitioner history in the sciences is, by a significant primary figure who has turned to it, after the work that made him or her primary has essentially been done, so as to keep a hand in, and perhaps somehow, impossible dream, constrain the future. In our field, A.I. Hallowell is another, if more sophisticated, example. He was driven toward retrospection by the essential completion of his Ojibwa work and the deaths of his long time comrades in arms, Speck and so on, to write what is, in my view, rather less history than a defence of a certain sort of historically informed self-understanding as it has appeared, and only appeared, so he claimed, in the West.[2]


However all that may be, and it may well be otherwise, Lowie, having defined to his own satisfaction what anthropology was and wasn't, what it ought and ought not to be, traces an extremely peculiar, not to say comic, genealogy for 'ethnological theory' -- a genealogy in which a lot of unexpected figures are included, apparently just because they called themselves anthropologists, and lots of figures one doesn't see how he could have managed to avoid are passed over, apparently because they called themselves something else. At least so far as I am concerned, a history of anthropology with such worthies as Hahn and Ratzel in it and Herder and Weber (never mind Dilthey and Arnold) not, that defends Graebner and dismisses Westermarck, is more a curiosity than anything else -- homemade history that, like homemade literary appreciations, homemade reality stories, or homemade souffles, carries rather more charm than it does conviction.


It is this sort of thing, not Lowie particularly but the humours and vagaries of practitioner history, its fondness for dividing sheep from goats and its unconcern with the mechanisms by which ideas are actually transported from one head to another in real time (conferences, friendships, collaborations, jealousies), that the appearance of George Stocking as a real-life working historian whose subject happened to be anthropology rendered rather rapidly obsolete. (Well, not entirely: The Rise of Anthropological Theory, a book rather better than Lowie's in its coverage, rather worse in its Siskel and Ebert thumbs up, thumbs down judgements, was published in 1968.[3]) The contribution to anthropology of what Matti Bunzi well calls, though perhaps a bit underestimates, Stocking's 'ambiguous detachment' -- 'an even-handed allocation of historical significance' [quoting Bunzi quoting Stocking] -- lies as much in what it prevents from happening as in what it causes to happen. This is not to say Stocking's work has been merely a matter of clearing away accumulated debris as it used to be said of Boas', before Stocking changed our minds about that, too. But as another extraordinary historian, Jack Hexter, once remarked, someone who tears up a sign to Dover pointing due south at the white cliffs also makes a rather important contribution to the general welfare, one which someone who comes along after the sign is no longer there is ill-positioned to appreciate.


The introduction into anthropology of a genuinely historical eye altered the very landscape in which we work, whether it was through the recuperation of Boas from charges of sea-water empiricism, the deconstruction of the myth that the culture concept sprang from the utilitarian brow of Tylor, or, most recently, the rejoining of Rivers' psychology to his enthnography, something about which the novelist Pat Barker has also had some interesting things to say. The mere scale of Stocking's work, as well as my sense of self-preservation, inhibits me from going into any sort of detail. (When George sent me After Tylor and I sent him After the Fact, I wrote to him that, title forms aside, we seemed to be going in opposite directions as we aged: his books were getting longer and longer, mine shorter and shorter, so we would end with him producing a four-volume work on Anthropology in Northeast Scotland, 1921-22 and I a twelve-page one called The Foundations of Culture, Society, and Personality.)


But there does remain one question, not to answer but to leave off with, and to keep my comment from turning into a mere hosannah, which even the angels grow tired of hearing. Has Stocking's receptivity to developments in anthropological thought and method been matched by a similar receptivity to those in history? Has he been as responsive to innovations in his natal discipline as he has to those in his adopted one? Has he, in his sidelong migration toward anthropology, perhaps himself become something of a practitioner historian? Recent efforts, in my view a bit strained, to make Stocking into a self-reflexive hermeneut, a feminist malgre lui, a stylistic innovator, a critical theorist, or a methodological rebel, suggest that this question is worth pondering as we move into that more shaking 'After' period than either 'Tylor' or 'The Fact' -- 'After Stocking'.


For if I have any lingering unease with George's work overall, it is that the quite radical changes that have occurred in historiography as such -- the rise and at least semi-fall of the Annales school, the development of a critical, constructivist history of science, the concern with what Barney Cohn once called 'proctological', that is bottom-up, history, the rise of feminist and women's history (not entirely the same thing), the new historicism of Greenblatt and others, post-colonial 'subaltern' studies, the so-called new intellectual history of LaCapra, Hayden White's metahistory, Michel Foucault's discontinuous history, the histoire des mentalites of Chartier, Darnton, Ginsburg, or Le Roi Ladurie -- are but weakly, if at all, reflected in it.


It is not that George does not know about all this; he knows about everything. But he has, almost deliberately it seems, perhaps even defiantly, ignored it in his own studies, however welcoming he has been to at least some of it in those of others. He has stayed, with a resoluteness on the one hand admirable, but on the other frustrating, firmly within the general framework laid down by the great nineteenth and early twentieth century wie es eigentlich gewesen historicists --Ranke, Mommsen, Collingwood, Taine, Beard. It would seem that if one wants to find an historian significant for feminist historians of anthropology, one would be better advised to look to Natalie Davis or Joan Scott than to try to make Stocking into that -- something of a reach -- and one should look similarly elsewhere for essayistic self-reflexiveness and cultural studies in the history of anthropology.


As I say, I raise this general issue of the degree to which developments in historical analysis, a number of them quite radical, have been carried over by Stocking into his work on our past, in part merely to sound an 'on the other hand' note into the vast stream of praise for Stocking, in which I happily join. But I do so also to suggest that history, as historians more and more variously practise it, has still much to offer us, if we can get any of its practitioners interested in us and our doings, as, somehow, via Hallowell or however, Stocking got, and stayed, not just interested, but absorbed. In any case, whatever future history the history of anthropology turns out to have, it will follow the path George has, not without resistance, certainly not without astounding scholarly effort and integrity, cleared for us. When, in his seventieth year, Duke Ellington failed for the umpteenth time to get the Pulitzer Prize for music, he said: 'God is being good to me. God does not weant me to be too famous too young'. This roundtable is not, thank god, a Pulitzer. But it is a tribute both long overdue and exactly on time.




1     Robert Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1937).

2     A.I. Hallowell, 'The Beginnings of Anthropology in America', in Selected Papers from the American Anthropologist 1888-1920, ed. Frederica de Laguna (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1960), 1-90.

3    Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1968).



The Introduction into Anthropology of a Genuinely Historical Eye, in: Journal of Victorian Culture, Autumn 99, Vol. 4, Issue 2, pp. 305-310


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