|"Any student of culture in the "social studies" sense who has picked up a new book and found inside a "kindred spirit," as I did 40 years ago with Albert Camus and, more recently, with Clifford Geertz, has a treat in store with Geertz' most recent, perhaps last, offering: Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton UP, 2000).
Right from the Preface, this flight is "Go for orbit." While seemingly bidding farewell to us, and this "vast inelegance" (attributed by Geertz to Stevens), Geertz lifts one's thoughts to uncommon heights using broad, galloping strokes in particular detail, kept on track with parenthetical interjections, self-depricating personal and professional reminders, and living proofs that long sentences need not be incomprehensible.
Although it is hard to know whether Available Light would have had the same impact, had I not spent the last two years updating my 1960s cultural anthropology education, I believe it would have helped to read it first, rather than last, before reading Interpretation of Cultures, Local Knowledge, Works & Lives, and After the Fact, as well as many non-Geertz offerings.
Had Available Light come to hand before I read 3 interesting, helpful, but turgid, volumes on ethnographic field work and methodology, in preparation for a retirement project I'm planning, I would surely have struggled less with any of the three. With 3 fundamental field work questions in a single sentence, Geertz made it all clear, the remainder being mostly "techniques" which those 3 books richly supplied. Where were you, Clifford, when I needed you?
Even more, had Available Light come to hand earlier in my self-tutorial sojourn, I would surely have struggled less with such basic concepts as "culture," "religion," and "semiotics." We who lay no great claim to extraordinary intellectual prowess can use Geertz' succinct definitional descriptions to collect, organize and parse the cacophony of competing definitions, perspectives, and outright agendas surrounding each such key anthropological concept.
Finally, the writing! You will rarely find such clear, lucid writing. It is a trait, I find, not unique to Geertz, but Geertz does it better than most. It is not simple writing - on the contrary! - but clear; few short sentences, as precision so often requires modulating interjection. Available Light could find valuable use by English and journalism students just for study of writing clarity!
If I have a gripe, it's only shared by Geertz with so many Harvard-trained so-called scholars, a propensity for uncommon vocabulary - not big words, mind you, but such uncommon ones that I, schooled so many decades ago, still race for the dictionary (where, incidentally, many do not occur). My working vocabulary is enormous, so I suspect "airs" when I encounter too many unknown words, even when they turn out to be well-suited to their context, and particularly when there is an equally-suitable, better-known synonym available.
One rejoinder: Early in Available Light, Geertz notes, he has not actually taught in many years. On the contrary, Professor Geertz, on the contrary! (Rod Borlase) "
"To engage in a meaningful dialogue with another discipline, and to reap the benefits of interdisciplinary work, it is essential to keep a firm grounding in the research tradition and scientific methods of one particular area of study. In Available Lights, Clifford Geertz often crosses boundaries and demonstrates an amazing command of other fields of research. His Anthropological Reflexions not only cover philosophical topics, but also address other disciplines such as psychology, political science, history, epistemology, and the natural sciences. But Clifford Geertz is a scholar who is quite secure about his disciplinary identity: "I am an ethnographer, and a writer about ethnography, from beginning to end; and I don't do systems."
Although the nature of anthropology is hard to pinpoint (it has to do with identity and difference, or with "how much difference difference makes"), Geertz is convinced that ethnographic fieldwork remains at the core of the discipline: field research is what anthropologists do that others don't. To discover who people think they are, what they think they are doing, and to what end they think they are doing it, it is necessary to gain a working familiarity with the frames of meaning within which they enact their lives. Recent attempts to reinvent the discipline by discarding fieldwork as an outdated ideology are met with skepticism: "There is very little in what the partisans of an anthropology in which fieldwork plays a much reduced or transformed role (...) have so far done that would suggest they represent the wave of the future." Therefore "deep hanging out", James Clifford's disparaging expression for fieldwork, is to be preferred to "nonimmersive, hit-and-run ethnography".
By staying close to the field, the ethnographer avoids a common pitfall: the attempt to "do systems", what the author labels "the-buck-stops-there approaches to social theory " or the "'it all comes down to' cast of mind". As he notes, there are very few laws or general rules in anthropology that aren't either false or trivial. At best, generalities are useful as heuristic devices, indicating the direction in which to probe deeper. Claude Levi-Strauss is a well-known example of an anthropologist who attempted to draw universal laws and general structures from his observations in the field, but Geertz disagrees with him on many points, epistemological as well as ethical. For Geertz, the renunciation of the authority that comes from "views from nowhere" ('I've seen reality and it's real') is not a loss, it's a gain. Direct and open acknowledgment of limits--this observer, in this time, at that place--is one of the things that most recommends this whole style of doing research.
But fieldwork poses many problems. First, as the author wryly notes, "we may be faced with a world in which there simply aren't any more headhunters, matrilinealists, or people who predict the weather from the entrails of a pig. Difference will doubtless remain--the French will never eat salted butter. But the good old days of widow burning and cannibalism are gone forever." Second, negotiating access to the field and establishing a meaningful relationship with a group of informants are no easy tasks. The relationship between an anthropologist and an informant rests on a set of partial fictions only half seen-through. For Geertz, "one of the psychological fringe benefits of anthropological research--at least I think it's a benefit--is that it teaches you how it feels to be thought of as a fool and used as an object, and how to endure it." Moral dilemmas abound, not least about how to cope with "a division of humanity into those who know and decide and those who are known and are decided for". This makes anthropology a moral discipline, in which "the results of thought inevitably reflect the quality of the kind of human situation in which they were obtained".
For an intellectual who confesses to be "shy of polemic", Clifford Geertz demonstrates an acute spirit and a sharp wit in discussing the work of researchers with whom he apparently disagrees: James Clifford's "hit-and-run ethnography", Claude Levi-Strauss' metaphor of cultures as intersecting trains peeking briefly into one another, critics who see in relativism an attack on "reason, freedom, footnotes, and civilization", or evolutionary biology's pretension to hegemony. But he also gives generous credit to scholars with whom he agrees, and he is ready to call his own self into question. For a septuagenarian, he is remarkably aware of the new challenges facing the discipline: the multipolar world and the redefinition of national or cultural identities, the new varieties of religious experience in the islamic world, the interactions between culture, mind, and the brain in explaining human behavior.
Clifford Geertz's prose is a model of the genre. His vocabulary is rich and evocative, his tone witty and humorous, his culture spans literary genres and historical periods. His review of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions sets the standard for any aspiring book reviewer. As in his other essays, long list of poets make cursory appearances, from Robert Frost to Richard Wilbur, from Gerard Hopkins to Constantine Cavafy, but Clifford Geertz himself could be added to this list of literary masters. "
"There is a lot to gain by reading Geertz; his knowledge and insight are wonderful. However, I don't think I have ever read anyone that uses run-on-sentences to the extent that he does. To pull the message out of his writing is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. I can't imagine how an editor allowed this verbal diarrhea to go unchecked. I can't tell if he is suffering from ADD or is simply pretentious. If you can get past all that, it is well worth reading. "