Works and Lives

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1846

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In this book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, Clifford Geertz is reviewing not so much the works as the lives of four major ethnographers of a previous generation: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Bronisaw Malinowski, and Ruth Benedict. The structure of his book clearly shows Geertz’s matter-of-fact approach: introduction, main body of four chapters, each dedicated to one of his four major ethnographers, and conclusion. Even the chapter titles and subtitles look like an outline, reflecting the contents and guiding the reader to the center of the discussion.

Geertz himself is a writer of some power and style, as readers of his other works already know. Besides stretching the vocabulary of the general readers of this book with terms such as “achronic,” “Nilotes,” “Gongorism,” and “nigrescent,” Geertz knows how to inject humor in the turn of a phrase. Often he does so in order to make his criticisms more palatable by turning them into gentle teasing.

A number of examples of this wit (somewhat out of context) illustrate the point: “I make these irreverent allusions to Michel Foucault’s famous article, ’What Is an Author?’ (which in fact I agree with, save for its premises, its conclusions, and its cast of mind).” Or again, this time referring to Lévi-Strauss: “Were he any more self-conscious, he would transport to a higher plane.” Geertz is also quite clearly having fun when he remarks that Susan Sontag, “who is in charge of such matters,” has called Lévi-Strauss an intellectual hero. Finally, this bit of clever false modesty: “In our ingenuous discipline, perhaps as usual an episteme behind, it still very much matters who speaks.”

In his introduction (“Being There”), Geertz lays out his basic argument, but does so sparingly. According to Geertz, it is not the amassing of evidence, nor literary skill per se, but the ability to convey in writing that ultimate authority—at least in terms of human experience—of having “been there” that has counted for something in the history of ethnography. He goes on to say that this appeal to personal experience cuts two ways: It achieves its purpose (convincing the reader that the author indeed speaks from direct personal experience) at the risk of seeming too involved, of not being objective or at least sufficiently detached.

In “The World in a Text,” the first chapter after the introduction, Geertz deals with Lévi-Strauss in general and Tristes tropiques (1955; A World on the Wane, 1961, better known as Tristes Tropiques) in particular. He notes that structuralism as a paradigm moved anthropology in general and ethnography in particular to the center of intellectual life in the West, something Geertz regards with some amazement and considerable admiration. According to Geertz, “It was not the odd facts . . . [he presented but] the mode of discourse he invented” that has made Lévi-Strauss so important in the history of anthropology and worthy of consideration in this book. Lévi-Strauss has made it difficult to read any text as referential. The literary product itself, after Lévi-Strauss, becomes the epistemological stopping-off point, and beyond there is only darkness.

Geertz traces two traditional approaches to understanding Lévi-Strauss’ work and then rejects them in favor of a perspective of his own. The more common approach has been a temporal one, trying to trace systematically the linear progress of Lévi-Strauss’ thought. For many, however, this perspective fails precisely because Lévi-Strauss himself is so topical and thematic in his writings, with little temporal reference or sequential development. For the second school of interpretation, the answer to understanding Lévi-Strauss is organization around different subjects from a consistent structuralist point of view. Geertz rejects the first view as too dependent on the idea (he calls it the myth) of progress, and the second he finds wanting because of its static view of structuralism from its beginnings to the recent past. Geertz prefers what he calls a “centrifugal” approach to organizing Lévi-Strauss’ work, or life. In this view, Tristes Tropiques is the “cosmic egg” at the center, and the rest of Lévi-Strauss’ work radiates out from it—presaging, explaining, anticipating, unfolding the themes and ideas of this central monument to structuralist thought.

Geertz can support his ideas of this centrifugal organizational principle operative in Tristes Tropiques because he sees it as a multidimensional work, really many texts in one. He goes on to isolate five major genres in the text: travelogue, ethnography, philosophical text, reformist tract, and symbolist literary text. The unity Geertz sees in Tristes Tropiques is myth, a quest story. Yet Geertz is not convinced, for while Lévi-Strauss sees a gulf so large between reality and experience that he retreats into a formalist metaphysic, Geertz restates the main argument of his book, that the relation between understanding and presentation “is so intimate in anthropology as to render them at base inseparable.”

Edward Evans-Pritchard is the next ethnographer to come under Geertz’s scrutiny (in the chapter titled “Slide Show”). Geertz takes as the focus of his attention a rather obscure article by Evans-Pritchard titled “Operations on the Okobo and Gila Rivers, 1940-1941” and published in The Army Quarterly in 1973. “E-P,” as Geertz calls him, is a study in similarities in principle and contrasts in practice with Lévi-Strauss.

A clarity, even a pictorial quality, pervades E-P’s prose. He eschews jargon, foreign phrases, florid punctuation, even adjectives. His sentences are simple and direct, and with this style E-P establishes a tone which, while it may sound imperialistic to many, works rather well dramatically and authoritatively, a tone which most anthropologists have been forced to imitate. This Geertz refers to as E-P’s “’of course’ discourse.” “The way of saying is the what of saying”—as clear for E-P as it is mysterious and textually ambiguous for Lévi-Strauss.

According to Geertz, E-P constructs “visualizable representations of cultural phenomena” which prove to his readers that their “established frames of social perception . . . are fully adequate” to deal with other cultures. E-P’s cultural values are justified at the same time as (or because?) they provide the paradigm for understanding other cultures. This approach might be called by some ethnocentric, but seen from his point of view (or rather Geertz’s view of his view), E-P was focusing on cultural elements which taken in principle provided, in his world, a common ground for humanity.

If Lévi-Strauss produced multiplex texts, Geertz asserts, Malinowski (“I-Witnessing,” chapter 3) lived “a multiplex life: sailing at once on several seas.” Malinowski plunged into native life without going native, and in so doing he bequeathed immersionist ethnography to anthropological research. On the other hand, Malinowski was arguably objectivist in analysis, as this comment of his demonstrates: “Only laws and generalizations are scientific facts, and field work consists only and exclusively in the interpretation of the chaotic social reality, in subordinating it to general rules.”

The modern heirs to Malinowski’s tradition of ethnographic research are not as confident as he was. Geertz finds the works of Vincent Crapanzano so full of modern literary allusions that they end up describing the author better than they do the subjects of his research. For Kevin Dwyer, the problem is a “dominance which consistently challenges the Other, [and] is now buttressed by an epistemology which does not allow the Other to challenge the Self.” Paul Rabinow believes that symbolic violence—that is, opening people up in ways they would rather not be known—“is inherent in the structure of the situation.” Speaking of this kind of apologetic self-consciousness, Geertz asserts: “The question that arises, of course, is how anyone who believes all this can write anything at all, much less go so far as to publish it.”

In “Us/Not-Us” (chapter 4), Geertz shows how Ruth Benedict gradually makes the alien familiar and the familiar alien while comparing the United States and Japan in her The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946). This identity switch seems too obvious to have been accidental, yet Geertz notes that it seems to go strangely unnoticed, even by Benedict herself. She is not entirely unaware of what she is doing, however, as this statement reveals: “The recognition of cultural relativity . . . carries with it its own values.” Apparently Benedict was optimistic about the validity and eventual triumph of these values. Geertz interprets Benedict at bottom to be more in the tradition of Jonathan Swift than in that of descriptive anthropology. She, like Swift, wrote “to vex the world rather than divert it.”

In his conclusion, “Being Here,” Geertz takes stock of the situation in cultural anthropology since the time of these four giants. Modern literary criticism, philosophy of knowledge, and other fields have addressed for some time the problem of the relation of words to events, of raw experience to one’s inevitable rationalizations (attempts to make meaning) of it. Ethnography has also found it out, if somewhat late. The gap between the scholarly world of the anthropologist and the worlds he or she tries to examine and explain has been noticed as never before, especially since the days of the ethnographers dealt with in this book. Anthropology seeks to know another reality, but can the knower know outside his own frame of reference? Or to put it another way, can he keep his world and that one he seeks to know from mutual contamination?

The real problem (and the one which is implicit throughout Geertz’s book) is not the morality of using other human beings as a scientific laboratory, nor is it the closed loop of knowing (where one ends up describing oneself), though these are certainly key issues in ethnography. It is self-consciousness itself, the fact that more and more those areas which formerly belonged to personal and cultural identity (and thus formed the largely unconscious matrix for ethnographic investigation) are being examined as human categories of thought and behavior, themselves open to anthropological investigation and analysis. It is at this point that one wishes that Geertz had been a bit more explicit and gone deeper, but it may be that this is as far as he has come in his thinking on the matter.

Classic imperalism and classic scientism (that optimistic belief in the redeeming power of empirical explanation) came to an end at roughly the same time in the period right after World War II, ending forever the universe of discourse that Lévi-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, and Benedict enjoyed and helped to destroy. This destruction has made both realities—the anthropologist’s as well as his object’s—more elusive, and at the same time less isolated and less capable of being isolated from each other. Yet Geertz does not despair. For him, ethnography by definition is somewhere between explicitly fictionalized truth-telling (such as the novel) and explicitly factualized text-building (such as the scientific monograph). Ethnography may at times be uncomfortable in this no-man’s-land, but this is still its terrain. The anthropology of the future (if there is to be any) will not abolish cultural pluralism, but will respect it while attempting crossings.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44

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The Christian Century. CV, February 3, 1988, p. 135.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 4, 1988, p. 18.

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