Clifford Geertz

Virtuoso cultural anthropologist


Clifford Geertz, anthropologist: born San Francisco 23 August 1926; Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley 1958-60; Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago 1960-61, Associate Professor 1962-64, Professor 1964-70; Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study 1970-2000, Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science 1982-2000 (Emeritus); married 1948 Hildred Storey (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1981), 1987 Karen Blu; died Philadelphia 30 October 2006.

Clifford Geertz was the foremost anthropologist of the past 40 years and perhaps the first of his trade to become world-famous. His copious works first supplemented, then superseded the mighty labours of the founding fathers of the discipline, Bronislaw Malinowski and, from England, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and E.E. Evans-Pritchard. It was indeed a founding mother, Margaret Mead, who taught him and his first wife, Hildred, all she knew about Bali, thereby launching Geertz on to the tiny island which he turned into half of his world-historical subject-matter.

He was born in 1926 to parents who divorced when he was three, whereat he was promptly dispatched to the care of "Nana", a 60-year-old foster-mother living precariously through the Great Depression in the infertile hills of northern California. Geertz went off to a two-room, two-teacher village school, learning early, as he said, that his "brightness" was his only passport out. At 17, under-age but indisputably bright, he volunteered for the navy as an electronic technician and sailed for two years on the USS St Paul, saved in the nick of time from the certain-to-be-slaughterous invasion of Japan in August 1945 by the successful detonation of Little Boy.

Home to the magnificent GI Bill which paid for servicemen's education, Geertz, wanting to write, read literature at Antioch College, Ohio, memorised everything, and, by way of the one inspiring teacher we all so urgently need at 20 (in his case one George Geiger), discovered American pragmatism and Oxford philosophy. Taking both to heart alongside Shakespeare and William Faulkner, in 1950 Geertz took a bursary at Harvard's Department of Social Relations, dedicated to world improvement, liked Talcott Parsons, admired Clyde Kluckhohn, met Margaret Mead, learned Javanese at top speed, and in 1952, "malarial and diffident", began the first of the four books he wrote in and about Java.

The Religion of Java (1960) dominates the quartet - the others being Agricultural Involution (1963), Peddlers and Princes (1963), and The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965). In The Religion of Java Geertz began to carve from the massive stones out of which the discipline of anthropology was accustomed to build kinship and customary structures the highly distinctive, far more wrought and slender figures with which he came to symbolise human effort and existence.

These were substantial volumes, and yet it has always seemed that Geertz was happiest in the room-sized accommodations of the essay, holding at poise the concision and pointedness of good journalism with the careful reading the literary critic can give his or her chosen poems in only 25 or so pages.

However this may be, Geertz went to Bali in 1957 and attended the Balinese cockfight; the result was the most famous single essay in anthropology, "Deep Play: notes on the Balinese cockfight", a great work of comic literature in its own right, and an irresistible example of how to understand highly peculiar but everyday life as "a constellation of enshrined ideas". Turning his celebrated slogan "thick description" to account, Geertz presented the cockfight, its rearing, clattering, blood-spattered protagonists, its demented gambling, its monomaniac, "cock-crazy" priestlings, its illegality and open secrecy as "a dramatic shape, a metaphoric content, a social context", a tale told by the Balinese to themselves about how they (mostly) do not want themselves to be.

This is Geertz's definition of culture: "stories we tell ourselves about ourselves". In his two classic collections, in print since they came out, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) and Local Knowledge (1983), he promulgated the meaning of his aphorism. Never slow to admonish social science attempts to be like the natural sciences, objective, numerical, factual, positive, Geertz was intent upon a vision excellently funny, one which stands upon that queasy imbalance at which one knows at once the reassuring likeness to oneself and the unnerving unlikeness to anything one can recognise in Other Peoples.

To bring out this instability he ran together, as he said in one of his notorious lists, the small change of half-a-dozen cultures, incised (living) human skulls, frescoed church walls, regal processions in Elizabethan London and the Moroccan mountains, street poetry competitions in Algeria and - refusing the big T of Theory - sought always, in his noble phrase, "to locate in the tenor of their setting the sources of their spell'.

After Bali, intent upon comparativism, Geertz left in 1963 for Sefrou in Morocco, where in a dazzling display of virtuoso interpretation he sorted the complexities of the market (the souk), its genealogy, the church which regulated it, and its strictly unwritten system of exchange, borrowing, security and honour. Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society came out in 1979, by which time Geertz had long since become the first social scientist to be enthroned at the celestial American headquarters of maths and physics, the Institute for Advanced Study, on the edge of Princeton township.

He remained there from 1970 until his death. In 1980 Princeton published, so to say, Geertz's Leviathan, his last full-scale anthropological work, Negara: the theatre-state in nineteenth-century Bali. It is astounding how directly it speaks from its exotic locale to Washington, London, Beijing or Tehran.

Dismissing those halflings who suppose that they have rumbled power by finding it hiding under everything, Geertz shows that a polity always dramatises itself in the ways it quite literally acts and acts out "a politics taking place everywhere", a drama in which "the real is as imagined as the imaginary". This is the poetics of power.

He left that lesson to do its work and was much reproached by what he called the "moral hypochondriacs" of the day for not apologising for this or that anthropological or American offence. He went on writing copiously, settling accounts in his courteous way with the first generation of anthropologists in Works and Lives (1988), autobiographising his ways of thought in After the Fact (1995) - a characteristic pun. Later much in demand as a global sage of our times (no more than his deserts), he republished his prescient little 1968 fable Islam Observed, as well as a new collection, Available Light (2000).

The last essay in that volume is called "World in Pieces", and it is indicative that, however much in bits that world may be, he commends to us the truths that it is still our common home, its politics awful but "what there is", and that it is the duty of scholars and intellectuals to keep up good hope.

Clifford Geertz gave the human sciences in general a quite new idiom. He made them capable of speaking seriously about life and death without such big words having to be put in the care of world history. If you want to put it like that, he helped recover its lost good name his own country's tradition in the use made of those same sciences on behalf of human order and freedom.

Fred Inglis

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