Thick Description
October 31, 2006 5:04 PM   Subscribe

He was a major influence on two generations who followed in the field, of which I represent the second. His work was beautiful, virtuosic, and problematic on a number of levels. But he always rose above his critics' simpler charges.

Well, now at least he knows for sure if it's turtles all the way down.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:11 PM on October 31, 2006


As I can say for the best anthropologists, he opened my mind to new ways of thinking and seeing the world. Although I will probably never return to academia, he will always remain a huge influence on me.

When I pray for my dead tomorrow, I will add his name to the list.
posted by kalimac at 5:20 PM on October 31, 2006

posted by Hildegarde at 5:31 PM on October 31, 2006

First Nigel Kneale, now Clifford Geertz. Who will be the third person I've never heard of to be memorialized on Metafilter today?
posted by jonson at 5:37 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Who will be the third person I've never heard of to be memorialized on Metafilter today?

Bah for some reason I would have said "yo mama" but that could sound uselessly mean.
posted by elpapacito at 5:41 PM on October 31, 2006

First Nigel Kneale, now Clifford Geertz. Who will be the third person I've never heard of to be memorialized on Metafilter today?

Isn't it great to learn something new every day? My horizons expand with posts like these.
posted by ericb at 5:41 PM on October 31, 2006

I'm not an anthropologist, but a psychologist - and Clifford Geertz has also touched the field of psychotherapy and research into psychotherapy outcomes. Thick descriptions instead of the thin dagnositic labels.

Thank you Mr. Geertz.
posted by trii at 5:56 PM on October 31, 2006

This does seem to be obituary day here at Metafilter.

Perhaps if we all just saved this link and promised to check it every day?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:56 PM on October 31, 2006

My background is in history and theological studies, and I was thrilled and excited to hear Clifford Geertz speak at Harvard in 1998.

I'm not sure I'd be too proud to announce I'd never heard of him.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:02 PM on October 31, 2006

"Plaguing subtle people with obtuse questions" . I wish I had stayed in academia, a little.

fourcheesmac - Any citations for critics/critiques of Geertz? Seems like a fitting way to honor him....
posted by sgarst at 6:08 PM on October 31, 2006

For those wondering what the big deal is: “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz. I found the link through this page on the anthropology blog Savage Minds, which also has links to some critiques of Geertz.

posted by LarryC at 6:40 PM on October 31, 2006

Geertz, A Life of Learning.
posted by footnote at 6:49 PM on October 31, 2006

Savage Minds just posted another good collection of Geertz links (including an interview, a lecture, and the HyperGeertz collection).
posted by imposster at 6:55 PM on October 31, 2006


Geertz's writings on deep play are beautiful, insightful, and wonderfully imaginative. A truly inspirational man who will be sorely missed.
posted by ericbop at 6:58 PM on October 31, 2006

Who will be the third person I've never heard of to be memorialized on Metafilter today?

Look, I know the humpback whale wasn't a "person", but you don't have to be mean about it.
posted by dhartung at 7:09 PM on October 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Geertz is a huge name, one of the handful of big-name anthropologists known to people outside anthropology.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 7:19 PM on October 31, 2006

Oh, man. He of the endless list of examples! I snuck out of work to hear him speak at Indiana University. Geeky, but worth it. And his work changed how I will look at journalism (yes, journalism) forever.
posted by salsamander at 7:28 PM on October 31, 2006

Thank you to the folks who provided links that contextualized this death; HyperGeertz is amazing.

In general, if you give a shit about someone who just died, take some time to craft a decent post in their honor, would you?

Oh, and from an old anthro major:

posted by mediareport at 7:47 PM on October 31, 2006

Aw. He was one of the authors that didn't make me cry when I first took theory as a grad student. He made things accessible and interesting even for people outside the field - and encouraged that in others.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:03 PM on October 31, 2006

posted by anotherpanacea at 8:03 PM on October 31, 2006

First Nigel Kneale, now Clifford Geertz. Who will be the third person I've never heard of to be memorialized on Metafilter today?
posted by jonson

jonson, you just revealed yourself as a profoundly ignorant boor.

posted by Rumple at 8:10 PM on October 31, 2006

fourcheesmac - Any citations for critics/critiques of Geertz? Seems like a fitting way to honor him....

Ortner, ed. The Fate of Culture: Geertz and Beyond (Sherry Ortner was one of Geertz's star students. It's a nice intro to what could properly be called the Geertz Debate.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:11 PM on October 31, 2006

And from a current anthro major:


Geertz was not only the most lucid and entertaining anthropologist I've had the pleasure to read and study, but he did (does) represent the foundation of current anthropology, much as predecessors like Boas and Malinowski represent the foundation of anthropology itself. Particularly when dealing with postmodern ethnographies it's hard to avoid the spector of Geertz leering over the writer with his fingers in ears going "I did it first! Boo!"

You'll be missed, Geertz. I'm still trying to figure out how to tell the difference between a wink, a blink, a twitch, and a parody of any of the above.
posted by TheSpook at 8:16 PM on October 31, 2006

The links posted upstream (Deep Play, A Life in Learning, HyperGeertz, etc) are good places to start for anyone who wants to learn more about Clifford Geertz's work. You don't have to be an academic to appreciate Geertz. He had an engaging style and wit that made his work interesting to read even outside of the classroom. He'll be sorely missed.
"The next necessary thing (so at least it seems to me) is neither the construction of a universal Esperanto-like culture, the culture of airports and motor hotels, nor the invention of some vast technology of human management. It is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other's way." - from Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author
posted by Aster at 8:16 PM on October 31, 2006


His work didn't play into my psych learning, but I took a "theory and methods of religious studies" class a couple years ago, and his essays were some of my favorites.
posted by hopeless romantique at 8:41 PM on October 31, 2006

jonson, you just revealed yourself as a profoundly ignorant boor

I concur; I will only quibble that you forgot to preface your statement with "once again."
posted by jonson at 9:31 PM on October 31, 2006

I'm not an anthropologist or a psychologist, but Clifford Geertz touched my field - Sociology - as well.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:01 PM on October 31, 2006

I do literary history, and I've referenced his work as well. It speaks to the lucidity of an author's writings that so many outside his field can find his writings intelligible and useful. It's rare these days to find academic authors who can say anything remotely profound without rendering it completely opaque to non-specialists.

posted by bcveen at 10:28 PM on October 31, 2006

This English major read and enjoyed Geertz at two different stages. For one, his The Interpretation of Culture begins with a WC Williams poem, "To Elsie":

The pure products of America
go crazy--
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure--

In grad. school, some of The Interpretatin of Culture was required reading for an intro. critical theory course.

Hope I can find the time to go back and read him again soon.
posted by bardic at 10:44 PM on October 31, 2006

Negara was one of the two or three books I read at university that totally changed the way I think. RIP.

posted by greycap at 11:18 PM on October 31, 2006

From a historian - I don't think there's any part of the humanities his work didn't influence.
posted by greycap at 11:19 PM on October 31, 2006

Works and Lives is indeed a tour de force. It's one of the reasons my degree became an anthropology degree. NYT review here.

I also recommend Islam Observed, which illustrated the diversity within Islam, all done in Geertz's rich and thoughtful style.
posted by imperium at 12:16 AM on November 1, 2006

Oh, and the third death is of course the great crocodile. Two great men to mourn, one not so much.
posted by imperium at 12:23 AM on November 1, 2006

This is very sad news. My field is the history of religion, and Geertz's work has meant a great deal to me. It's inspired me, excited me, challenged me, and, in the dark days of finishing my PhD, reassured me that I was doing something worthwhile with my time.

I suppose his most influential essay on religion is 'Religion as a Cultural System' (from The Interpretation of Cultures, where it sits alongside those other classic essays on 'thick description' and the Balinese cockfight). But he went on thinking about religion right through his career, and his late essay 'The Pinch of Destiny: Religion as Experience, Meaning, Identity, Power' (in Available Light) is a masterpiece of lucidity and good sense. He was one of the first scholars to realise that something very big was going on in the encounter between Islam and modernity.

If I had to pick a favourite passage from his writings, I think it would be the chapter on 'Modernities' (from After the Fact, his most autobiographical book) where he describes his visit to a madrasah in Java in 1986, and the extraordinary 'graduation ceremony' that he witnessed there. Here's a short extract (which also illustrates how beautifully he wrote):

Three quite small boys, no more than seven or eight years old, appeared as if from nowhere. They were mimes, made up in whiteface but otherwise uncostumed in their sleeveless half-shirts and their short pants, dead silent and without expression. In excruciating slow motion, that seemed to defy the law of gravity, they proceeded to conduct a mock street brawl, entirely in gestures. They kneed one another, goosed one another, tripped one another up, knocked one another over, booted one another in the behind, slapped one another's face, snatched at one another's genitals, socked one another in the nose or eye, in no apparent pattern, and then they collapsed, after ten minutes or so, into a heap in the center of the stage, so many rag dolls. Or perhaps so many exhausted balloons. For a fourth boy then came on and gradually, body section by body section, mime-pumped them back up again, after which they left the stage as precipitously as they had come, unfurling from somewhere a black banner that read 'Happy Idul Fitri!'

Geertz taught me the lesson, which I also learned from Darnton's Great Cat Massacre, that sometimes the most creative question a historian can ask is 'what the fuck is going on here?' Or to put it another way: when you don't 'get' something, you know you're onto something interesting -- which is one reason why I am so fascinated by religion.

What makes this all the sadder is that Geertz was still writing at the peak of his powers. I remember a piece he wrote for the NYRB, only a year or two ago, on Jared Diamond's latest book. (Not surprisingly, Geertz was unimpressed by what he saw as Diamond's environmental determinism.) And I see from the obituary that at the time of his death, he was in the middle of a project on ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world. It's very sad to think that he left it unfinished.
posted by verstegan at 1:40 AM on November 1, 2006


A wonderful writer who died too soon. I badly want to read that "project on ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world."

For what it's worth, by the way, I don't think jonson meant that as a putdown, I read it as simply saying he hadn't heard of these people (I hadn't heard of Nigel Kneale myself); for all we know, the implication could be, as ericb put it, "Isn't it great to learn something new every day?" Of course, it could have been a putdown, but jonson's pretty good at expressing himself when he wants to be snarky, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
posted by languagehat at 5:34 AM on November 1, 2006

posted by farishta at 5:45 AM on November 1, 2006

Ah, Geertz. I too, sometimes wish I'd stayed in academia.

Any links to this critique of Diamond?
posted by canine epigram at 6:19 AM on November 1, 2006

There's a great series of Geertz-related links today at wood s lot.

By the way, in case anyone didn't know, it's pronounced "Gertz."
posted by languagehat at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2006

Geertz Review of Diamond.

Though in Verstegan's terms, Diamond explores the stuff we get, Geertz that which we don't get. Two ships, night.

A third ship for these waters: Stanley Tambiah - a great writer on the anthropology of Buddhism, therefore thick and thin at once.
posted by Rumple at 7:23 AM on November 1, 2006

I hesitate to write because the man just died, but with all due respect, there are contrary opinions about Geertz’s impact on anthropology. His prose was beautiful and compelling, he was an engaging speaker, and intellectually very clever, but he introduced postmodern thinking into anthropology and led the field down the path of irrelevancy. The field floundered and is still floundering as a result of his influence. At least that is my interpretation…wink, wink.
posted by ALvard at 8:11 AM on November 1, 2006

ALvard -- well, being disrespectful of the dead is pretty much an anthropological tradition. Postmodernism would have hit Anthropology anyway, like it did pretty much every discipline, and if we got Geertz out of the deal, so much the better.

In any case, the fact is (and I am speaking as a pretty empirical, bring-out-yer-dead professor of said discipline), Anthropology did have a very hard re-think coming to it, more than any other social science, and pomo forced it into a crisis of conscience. From that breakdown, a new and better anthropology has come. Sure, while an argument is on, not much work gets done -- but the argument is largely over and people are back to work with a tremendous gain in perspective on the history of the discipline and thus on what constitutes useful, acceptable practice today. Some anthropologists never got the postmodern critique, but, more importantly, many never got over it and are still hunkered down in a quivering mass of self doubt and autocritique. Geertz was way ahead of that curve.
posted by Rumple at 8:26 AM on November 1, 2006

he introduced postmodern thinking into anthropology

Hardly an obvious truth. His most severe critics have been the postcolonial theorists who owe much to the "pomo" turn. These cartoon labels don't really help.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:28 AM on November 1, 2006

And well said Rumpie, from a fellow empiricist.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:30 AM on November 1, 2006

posted by Merlyn at 10:32 AM on November 1, 2006

languagehat, how do you know GERTZ is the way to say Geertz? I always say "GEE-ERTZ" in my head, and have never said the man's name aloud or heard anybody say his name aloud, so I suppose you know how to say it because you have heard it pronounced, but I wondered whether it's from personal direct experience or from less direct, academic experience, or what.

Not snark, if that's not clear. Just curiosity.
posted by cgc373 at 1:48 PM on November 1, 2006

cgc: I make it my business to know these things. I forget where I learned this one—it was a long time ago—but you can get confirmation here (a useful site, though more trustworthy on Anglo-American names than furrin ones).
posted by languagehat at 1:57 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

That's a very cool site, thanks.
posted by cgc373 at 6:52 PM on November 1, 2006

It bugged me all night, and I had to come back to say this .. .

One could argue, easily enough, that Geertz, and the broader tradition of social thought he represented (phenomenological cultural relativism) influenced "postmodernism" a lot more than vice versa, and that many of "pomo's" main ideas were watered down insights one can find in Weber and Benedict and Geertz.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:58 AM on November 2, 2006

fourcheesemac, good point. Pomo didn't spring out of nowhere, and a lot of it was the collision of beautifully subtle ideas and expression with lesser, unoriginal, derivative minds seeking tenure. Even Papa Boas, when you consider his classic BAE works, or those of his students, are way ahead of the time in some respects.

For example: In the early 20th century, Boas trains an aboriginal man (George Hunt) for a year in data collection methods and transcription. Hunt then returns to Vancouver Island and conducts fieldwork asking open ended questions ("tell me about the origins of your lineage"), which were transcribed line-for-line. They were then published in interlinear text translation with kwa'kwa'kawakw sentences and their word-by-word translation interwoven. Then, there would be another translation into English prose. So three separate representations of the same text. In some of the BAE volumes, there is an index in which you can reconstruct the editing process by reference back to the field notes - transparency of editing process. Elders were paid for their time and for their stories, as was culturally appropriate. Put this into pomo speak and you have insider-outsider watchers of the watcher's watchers collaboratively creating polyvocal triadic texts with editorially transparent reconstructable experientialism in published volumes that privilege indigenous perspectives, said stories purchased appropriately through traditional means to be presented on their own terms.

100 years later a lot of anthropologists are not walking that walk, instead their heads are up their collective yingyangs looking for absolution from colonialist guilt. How fucking postmodern are the fifty different recipes for blueberry cakes in Boas 1921? Entire books of Bella Coola (Nuxalk) and Bella Bella (Heiltsuk) stories published ONLY in those languages? THAT'S polyvocality, haters. Try that with your precious fucking Academic Presses these days.

And yes, Boas is hardly a model in a lot of other ways (Yuquot Whaler's Shrine?!), but approached with an open mind a lot of that kind of ethnography contains amazingly advanced representations (blah blah postcolonial blah unreflexive blah blah whiteydonebad). And pretty thick, to boot! I've been in an awful lot of Haida households that own a copy of Swanton's Haida Texts and Myths: Skidegate Dialect.

As for Geertz's name, in the wild of both North American and English anthropology departments, I don't believe I have ever heard it pronounced any way other than Gee-ertz. Maybe he should have sent out a memo.
posted by Rumple at 8:14 AM on November 2, 2006

Other people whose names were mispronounced by everyone to the point that they gave up and accepted it: Paul Motian (the name's Armenian and should be MOH-tee-uhn, but he got tired of correcting people who said MOH-shun); Lawrence Olivier (should be oh-LIV-ee-er, not -ay).
posted by languagehat at 12:28 PM on November 2, 2006

Rumple, we probably know each other in real life. Go figure.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:52 PM on November 2, 2006

fourcheesemac -- heh. Then buy me a beer!
posted by Rumple at 10:59 PM on November 2, 2006

Rumple, are you going to San Jose?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:34 PM on November 4, 2006

Because I will happily buy you that beer during AAA.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:35 PM on November 4, 2006

Sadly, no, I wasted my travel grant going to Lisbon. Raincheck though.
posted by Rumple at 10:10 AM on November 5, 2006

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