Re: Geertz and Generous Readings

John Mcreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 5 Aug 1995 08:57:02 +0900

John Stevens writes,

"Yes. I think that "stimulation" is primarily what I get from Geertz,
even from his more flaccid analyses. He creates space for ideas and
gets the ole hermeneutical spiral a spinnin'. At his best, he makes
you ponder, question, and interpret what you see and believe. I
think that makes discussing him an interesting exercise in itself,
since you have to learn to nuance what you say in tension with what
you think he says, but what others may not see."

I have tried, casting back through my memory, to recall points
where I found Geertz inspirational and ponder why they moved me.
If the conversation gets serious, I will go back and check the
sources. Be warned. The following may not be Geertz; only what
McCreery remembers about him.)

Today I'll start with one point: ***The notion that to be human is to
be human in some particular way, defined in large part by the
mores of the tribe in which you grow up***. Boas already said it.
What G. added was (a) explicit rejection of the "onion" model in
which language and culture form a layer on top of society, itself a
layer on top of psychology, itself a layer on top of biology and (b)
insistence that the meanings of things in particular cultures are
visible in the things themselves and the ways in which people
publically behave around them--not hidden away deeper in the
onion. For me this notion coalesced with Levi-Strauss' observation
that "There is a logic in tangible qualities"
(in the Overture to _The Raw and the Cooked_) to become a
directive to pay attention to the details of what I would see (also
hear, taste, feel) while doing fieldwork.

Why was this important? I'd had a classic, modernist education
with heavy doses of behaviorist psychology and logical empiricist
philosophy of science, to which had been added some classic
Durkheimian British anthropology. That all added up to an
inclination to focus on selected (typically demographic) data,
develop an abstract model of social structure and, then, should
some particular custom interest me, to explain it in terms of that
structure. Not bad as far as it goes and easy to justify in
methodological terms as the social scientific equivalent of the
experimental scientist isolating the variables s/he wishes to test,
this approach felt increasingly sterile. Geertz' opened up other
possibilities, that included a broader, more humane and historical

On a personal level, the attack on the "onion" pushed against my
own, Jeffersonian American, conviction that language and culture
can, and should be, changed by moral individuals with the
gumption to leave behind the scruffy places in which they grew up
to build new lives for themselves in a New World of their own
making. There was also, I've come to realize a deep clash with the
basically similar Christian idea that, through baptism and
conversion, a person can become a "new man." (And the
existentialist notion, with which I'd also flirted, that meaning, not
given in the world, must thus be created by individual subjects.)

Over to you.

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)