On Witch Foot is the Shoe?

Tue, 14 Dec 1993 10:09:42 CST

The classic witch-hunter believes what happens in dreams is no less real
than anything else. A positivist's experiment has the same claim to
belief as the postmodernist's dream; there are are no privileged
accounts. Look, A. Helgason and I put our definitions of pomo on the
table, and I saw no objections. Helgason says, approximately, "a
reiteration of subjectivisim and relativism," I say, "a light-hearted
rejection of all claims to knowledge." Geertz's "Thick Description"
essay supports, and is admired by, this trend, regardless of its date of
publication. If anything, the early date might justify calling that
essay "foundational" for the anthropological manifestation of what later
was dubbed postmodernism. At stake here is more than the way a word is
used. The question is, does the amount of evidence and reason
supporting a proposition give it a special claim to our belief? Or are
we content to say, with Geertz, that Anthropology's most valubable
propositions are those with least support? His words, as S. Nelson,
points out, are prettier: Our most "telling assertions" are those "most
tremulously based"; but their meaning is quite ugly, and I am
disturbed--but not surprised--to read S. Nelson's account of what sounds
like a pretty ugly show in the name of anthropology. I do not claim to
maintain a very good sense of humor, because many people have dreamed,
and worked, to create a more scientific anthropology worthy of the
respect of hominids willing to use the brains evolution gave us.
If I were a physicist, I could afford to feel less threatened; but
anthropology's scientific progress is too new and fragile, so I am
insecure. Postmodern anthropology makes a mockery of the high
dreams and hard work of many. --Bob Graber