Clifford Geertz: Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology; Basic Books; New York

Paul Elmer More once noted the presence of demons in human society: “The Malec of violence, the Beelzebub of treachery, the Belial of lying flatteries, the Mammon of gold, the Mephis­topheles of skepticism, and others of the Stygian Council escaped through the open gates of hell.” Important among these is a demon who so wears the robe of authority that he passes for an angel of light. His great mischief derives fromthe fact that the finer minds are often the most susceptible to his enticements. He is the Demon of the Absolute, whom More identifies as rationalism or reason run amuck. Reason, as long as it is content to accept the actual data of experience in its diversity and particu­larity, is our constant guide and friend, one of our diviner faculties. But when it ignores facts, develops ideologies and sets up its own absolutes as the truth for us to act upon, it becomes dangerous and demonic. There are no absolutes in nature, says More: “They are phantoms created by reason itself in its own likeness, delusions which, when once evoked, usurp the field of reality and bring endless confusion in their train.” An example of the Demon at work is the wrangling between those who conceive the ultimate reality of things as immut­able unity and those who reduce the universe to pure flux and multiplicity.

Clifford Geertz is a kind of anthro­pological exorcist stalking the Demon of the Absolute. Always suspicious of systematizing, he warns that “the more orderly and straightforward a particular course looks the more it seems ill­ advised.” Instead of trying to explain social phenomena by “grand textures of cause and effect,” he examines them within “local frames of awareness.” He resists structuralism “as a sort of high­ tech rationalism” believing that the logic of a culture is to be found, not presup­posed. Tacking between fine-combed observations and synoptic characterization, between “the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure,” his method is “to attain what generalities it can by orchestrating con­trasts rather than isolating regularities or abstracting types.” The world is a various place, he is fond of emphasizing, and more can be gained by confronting “the grand actuality” than by wishing it away in a haze of “forceless generalities and false comforts.”

As a spokesman for the trend in anthropology emphasizing symbols and meanings, Geertz is highly regarded. He studied at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford and has taught at Berkeley, Chicago, and Oxford. He is now a professor at Prince­ton’s Institute for Advanced Study. He has written six books treating the cultures of Bali, Java, Indonesia, and Morocco,and his award-winning The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) has been widely read. Local Knowledge, as the subtitle indicates, is a continuation of that 1973 collection of essays. Among the subjects treated are the recent blurring or mixing of genres in intellec­tual life, the nature of anthropological understanding (to what extent can we see “from the native’s point of view”?), art and common sense as cultural sys­tems, the ethnographic analysis of modern thought (various disciplines are really ways of being in the world), and the relation of fact and law in a compara­tive perspective. As might be expected, most of the pieces have appeared previ­ously; only the last, a long, three-part essay titled “Local Knowledge: Fact and Law in Comparative Perspective,” is printed here for the first time. As also might be expected, the author claims in his introduction that although the essays were prepared for various occasions and audiences they are unified by a general program. In this case the claim happens to be true. Recurring attitudes, concepts, and terms inform the essays and mark them as “interpretive anthropology” as Geertz practices it.

What is interpretive anthropology andhowdoesitrelatetolocalknowl­ edge? Geertz’s concept of culture is essentially a semiotic one. He has consistently defined culture with some version of this formula: “Culture is a system of meanings embodied in sym­bols.” Both “meaning” and “symbol” are defined broadly. As he explains in the introductory essay of The Interpretation of Cultures:

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surfaces enigmatical.

He aligns himself with the symbolic action theorists and views culture as an “acted document” or “text” written in the examples of behavior. He believes the interminable debate among anthropologists as to whether culture is subjec­tive or objective is misconceived. If we view human behavior as symbolic action–action that signifies–then the debate loses sense. And in interpreting signifiers in social phenomena, the emphasis should be on particular context and specific detail, or, in other words, local knowl­edge. For Geertz, the interpretive study of culture is an attempt “to come to terms with the diversity of the ways human beings construct their lives in the act of living them.” The principle chal­lenge is to steer between overinterpreta­tion and underinterpretation.

Dispassion, generality, and empirical grounding have been the elusive aims of the determinative approach. To achieve such aims it has posited a radical distinc­tion between description and evalua­tion. Geertz’s cultural hermeneutics finds that distinction problematic. In his view, the importance of an ethnologic account lies not in the author’s ability to “capture primitive facts in faraway places and carry them home like a mask or a carving” but in the degree to which he is able to interpret and clarify what he has observed. It is a process of transla­tion, closer to “what a critic does to illumine a poem” than to “what an astron­omer does to account for a star.” Indeed, one of the essays in Local Knowledge draws an explicit parallel between what Lionel Trilling did in criticism and what Geertz does in anthropology. Both are concerned with the social context of of the moral imagination. Just as Trilling, for example, “translates” the world of Jane Austen for the 20th-century reader, Geertz “translates” Balinese culture for the Western reader. 

The interest in interpretation–con­ceiving of human behavior and its products as texts to be analyzed and explicated–touches nearly every realm of cultural study. Geertz calls attention to the frequent mixing of genres in intellectual life and claims it is producing a “refiguration of social thought.” The social sciences are undergoing a “depro­vincialization” that is leading them away from models of positivistic science. “The penetration of the social sciences by the views of such philosophers as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Gadamer, or Ricoeur, such critics as Burke, Frye, Jameson, or Fish, and such all-purpose subversives as Foucault, Habermas, Barthes, or Kuhn makes any simple return to a technological conception of those sciences highly improbable.” More and more, he says, the social sciences are turning to the humanities for models and explanatory analogies. This is evidence both of the turn to interpretation and of a refiguration that is altering not only theory, method, and subject matter butal so the very aims of those disciplines.

Such a shift in aims is reflected in Geertz’s assertion that anthropological writings are fictions; “fictions, in the sense that they are ‘something made,’ ‘something fashioned,’ not that they are false, unfactual, or merely ‘as if’ thought experiments.” Cultural analysis, he claims, is intrinsically incomplete. Interpretive anthropology is a science whose progress is marked less by perfec­tion of consensus than by refinement of debate: “There are no conclusions to be reported; there is merely a discussion to sustain.” These notions are more charac­teristic of the literary critic than of the scientist.

This revised style of discourse in the social sciences has important implications for the humanities. Although Geertz does not explore those implications very far, he suggests that a critical consciousness will have to develop to guide social scientists in this new direction, and the humanists may not be very well prepared for such a task. Urgently needed are the reflections of humanists on the activities of social scientists as they employ models and analogies from humanist domains. Since the imagery for those activities derives from the humanities, the humanists are connected with the argument not as “skeptical bystanders” but as “charge­able accomplices.” Whether this situa­tion will make the social sciences less scientific or humanistic study more so, Geertz does not presume to say, but he insists that the changing character of both is clear and important.

Geertz’s insistent concern with local knowledge–with diversity, particulars, and specific cultural context–creates uneasiness for the Demon of the Abso­lute, and that is all to the good. </span> But there is, after all, a danger of becoming lost in particulars. Knowing everything in particular, one might end by knowing nothing in particular. Geertz dismisses this fear of particularism as “a bit of academic neurosis.” He insists that his approach approach is not an attempt to exalt diversity but rather to “take it seriously as itself an object of analytic description and interpretive reflection.” All the same, one wonders in reading his essays exactly how diversity and relativity are to be counterbalanced. He speaks of a dynamic process of tacking between observation of detail and formulation of generalities, of hopping back and forth between the whole conceived through the parts and the parts conceived through the whole. But doesn’t even such a fluid process need some kind of orienting principles? I suspect, as a matter of fact, that such principles are tacitly operating in Geertz’s writings-­- certain unarticulated value assumptions that provide equilibrium in his confron­tation with the “grand actuality.” He ends the book with the statement that the primary question for any cultural institution any where is whether human beings are going to be able to continue “to imagine principled·lives they can practicably lead.” lf we were to ask more of Local Knowledge, it might be to inquire  about  the  exact  nature  and source of the principles.