More than almost all of its sister disciplines, anthropology in the modern sense has been – until very recently – linked to global imperial power. The big intra-European states of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their famous sociologists, economists, historians, linguists, philosophers and literary theorists, but only the global powers – Britain, France and the United States – produced the (figurative) ‘big men’ of anthropology who are still read seriously today. One can think of their production as coming in three distinct waves. The first generation came to maturity in the palmy days before the Great War, when the empires were assuming their final consolidated form, and colonialism seemed unchallengeable: in the long decade of 1872-84 were born Marcel Mauss (1872), Alfred Kroeber (1876), A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881), and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884), with Ruth Benedict (1887) at the tail end. The second generation were born in the decade 1901-11: Margaret Mead (1901), Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908), Edmund Leach (1910), Louis Dumont and Max Gluckman (1911). They were formed in the age of Hitler and Stalin, and, in the cases of France and Britain, of impending imperial decline. The last generation came to adulthood during World War Two, and made their careers during the Cold War, the zenith of American intercontinental power, when dying colonialisms were replaced by a vast congeries of ‘new nations’. Thus, between 1919 and 1930 were born the modern – one might also say pre-Post-Modern – masters: Jack Goody (1919), Victor Turner (1920), Mary Douglas (1921), and Marshall Sahlins (1930). Right in the middle came Clifford Geertz, who was born in San Francisco in 1926. In the quarter-century between 1960, when he published his masterly The Religion of Java, and the middle Eighties, he was, after Lévi-Strauss, the most widely-known and influential anthropologist around. After the Fact, a collection of his recent Jerusalem-Harvard lectures, is, as indicated by its subtitle, an informal, if personally reticent, retrospective on a remarkable career, and on the worlds that shaped its characteristic contours.
After teenage wartime service in the American Navy, Geertz went back to school at Antioch College, where he majored in philosophy and English. On graduation, following the advice of Margaret Mead among others, he enrolled for his doctorate at Harvard’s newly-formed, idiosyncratic Department of Social Relations, ruled by the conservative neo-Weberian social theorist Talcott Parsons. Guided by the sweet motto, ‘Toward a Common Language for the Areas of the Social Sciences’, the department attempted to incorporate as an integrated field of study the disciplines of sociology, social psychology, clinical psychology and anthropology. The resident grand maître in anthropology was Clyde Kluckhohn, who, in a manner characteristic of early Cold War imperial America, presided over two huge research projects. One was the comparative study of values in five adjacent, mostly colonised, cultures in the North American South-West. The other was the Russian Research Center, which, Geertz wryly recalls, employed ‘social scientific techniques (refugee interviewing, content analysis) in an effort to penetrate, and foil, Soviet intentions.’
Grandiose and expensive co-operative research projects being the Harvard thing, Geertz and his then wife Hildred found themselves recruited into a nine-person team heading off to study Indonesia, a country which had only just won its independence after a bitter four-year war against its Dutch colonial masters, and of which Geertz ruefully notes he knew little more than the geographical location. Over the next decades, Geertz did the remarkable fieldwork in Java and Bali which produced the five major books on which his long-term reputation rests: The Religion of Java (1960), Pedlars and Princes (1963), Agricultural Involution (1963), The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965), and Negara (1980). This profusion led to a meteoric academic ascent to a full professorship, at the age of 38 and after only five years teaching, at the University of Chicago, then the most prestigious centre for anthropological studies in the United States. But Geertz’s arrival at Chicago did not occur through conventional disciplinary channels: he was initially recruited and financed by a typically grandiose Kennedy-era operation called the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations, organised by the Parsons-derived sociologist Edward Shils and the political scientist David Apter. Geertz quotes from Shils’s amusingly unself-conscious, Cold War-imperial foundational essay:
The categories we employ are the same as the ones we employ in our studies of our own societies, and they postulate the fundamental affinities of all human beings. Their persistent application in research and the diffusion of the results of research into the circles of influential opinion, will, it is hoped, further the process through which that sense of affinity, necessary for constructive policy, is nurtured. Our undertaking does not, however, intend to attain these moral effects through preaching, exhortation or manipulation. We seek to do it through enlightenment. Our chosen instrument of enlightenment is systematic research, conducted under the auspices of the best traditions of contemporary social science.
Needless to say, the Committee did its share of preaching, exhorting, perhaps even manipulating. It also had a major impact on Geertz over the ten years he was directly associated with it. Although most of his work was straightforwardly ethnographic, he began a second career as a sort of superordinate social scientist, writing energetically, and for a wide public, on such Fifties Shilsian topics as ‘Ideology as a Cultural System’, ‘After the Revolution: The Fate of Nationalism in the New States’, ‘The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States’, and ‘Politics Past, Politics Present: Some Notes on the Uses of Anthropology in Understanding the New States’. Today, these essays have the musty air of tracts for the times, but they helped to create Geertz’s distinctive reputation as the one formidably intelligent American anthropologist whom non-anthropologists, in the universities and in ‘circles of influential opinion’, could and should read with global profit.
Then, like a bolt from the blue, so to speak, came the ‘Sixties’, first in Indonesia, then in Chicago. In the former, political polarisation had been steadily deepening in the second half of the Fifties, very much along the faultlines acutely analysed in The Religion of Java. The country’s first and only free elections were held in 1955, and showed a vast new electorate roughly equally divided between four huge antagonistic political parties. Geertz had brilliantly shown that while 90 per cent of Indonesia’s population of 100 million or so were nominally Muslim, somewhat less than half of these were what he called santri (i.e. people for whom a Muslim identity was paramount), while the rest, the abangan, combined their Islam with strong residues of pre-Islamic beliefs and practices (animism, Hindu-Javanese syncretism etc), to say nothing of nationalism and Marxism. And if devout Muslims were divided vertically between a ‘modernist’ (Geertz would later call it ‘scripturalist’) urban, and a traditionalist rural segment, so the abangan were split horizontally between a rapidly growing Communist Party based on the rural and urban poor, and a heavily Javanese upper and middle-class-led Nationalist Party. Creating an effective and united national government would have been difficult under any circumstances, but the parties were also faced with a politically ambitious right-wing military, the charismatic, left-leaning President Sukarno, and rapidly spreading regional dissent across the sprawling archipelago. At the end of 1957, Sukarno decreed the nationalisation of the vast corporate Dutch properties in the country, which quickly passed under military control. Early in 1958, a CIA-backed rebellion broke out in parts of Sumatra and Celebes, which was crushed at the cost of vast new powers for the military high command. In 1959, under pressure from the army leaders, Sukarno scrapped the liberal constitution of 1950, and restored the authoritarian version of 1945, worked out in the final days of the Japanese occupation. There followed a ban on the party of modernist Islam, and replacement of the elected Parliament by a Presidentially-appointed body. But Sukarno rightly feared an eventual military take-over, and so did his best to protect and encourage the surviving large parties as a counterweight. Among these the most important was the Communist Party, which by the early Sixties had become the largest (legal) Communist Party outside the socialist bloc.
Army control – and massive mismanagement – of the nationalised industries and plantations led to conflict with powerful unions under Communist and left-nationalist influence. In the absence of elections, political competition spread rapidly into all spheres of social life without any means of temporary resolution. Inflation soared as foreign investors withdrew or were expelled, the economy crumbled, and the Government found itself forced into reckless printing of money. By 1963, it was easy enough to foresee an explosion of some kind, although no one really expected the colossal bloodshed of 1965-66, when between 500,000 and a million leftists were murdered by the army leadership and its civilian (mainly santri) allies, and hundreds of thousands more were jailed under terrible conditions, without trial, and without prospects of any quick release.
Geertz reports that it was in 1963 that he decided to move on from Indonesia. He and his then desperately ill wife had been accidentally trapped in West Sumatra at the height of the brief civil war of 1958. Now, he felt unwilling to put his two small children at any risk in the field, while he never considered seriously doing field-work alone: ‘I have never worked in the field alone for more than a month or so, and doubt very much that I could have managed it.’ Casting about for a serener, ‘comparative Muslim’ site, he briefly toyed with the possibility of Bangladesh before deciding on Morocco as the best site for ‘Java Project Two’.
Meanwhile the Sixties had arrived in the United States too, perhaps nowhere more spectacularly than in the city he had made his home. As Geertz recalls it, ‘there were teach-ins, marches, strikes; the administration building was occupied, professors were physically attacked. Off-campus, the Black Panthers were shot up, the Chicago Seven were tried, the yippies attempted to levitate the Merchandise Mart, and the Democratic Convention exploded.’ (It is curious that Geertz does not mention the Vietnam War.) Crisis in Indonesia had moved him towards Morocco in 1963; it appears that crisis in America, especially in its major universities, had a comparable migratory effect. In 1970, Geertz abandoned his quite brief teaching career to assume the first ‘social science’ appointment ever at the most celebrated of all American ivory towers: the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, founded in 1930 as the transatlantic answer to the Collège de France and All Souls. There he has remained ever since. ‘Social science’, however, had a hard time of it in a milieu dominated by ‘real scientists’ – physicists, mathematicians and so forth – and Geertz quickly became embroiled in a bitter losing battle to recruit his friend Robert Bellah, a sociologist of religion, which erupted into the gleefully malicious pages of several national newspapers. (Geertz quotes a ‘particularly enragé mathematician’ telling the director Carl Kaysen that ‘social science will be your Vietnam.’) Though Geertz was later more successful with other recruitments, it would be hard to say that the Social Science division of the IAS has ever lived up to early expectations, though honours of all kinds continue to pour in on its founder.
One central reason for this relative failure was certainly the decline in the imperial pretensions of ‘social science’ itself, as it came under assault from various directions in the Seventies and Eighties. In the later years of the Vietnam War, American anthropology became bitterly divided over the roles certain of its practitioners had played in advising or supporting Washington’s war machine; out of this came a much wider suspicion of the political implications of the key social science doctrines of the Fifties, in particular modernisation and American-style development. Marxism, against which the Parsonian and Shilsean projects had been in part constructed, acquired, in New Left form, an increasingly wide constituency among younger anthropologists. Edward Said’s uneven, but blistering assault on ‘Orientalism’ reinforced these tendencies. On top of all this came the anti-humanist French tornado – first Lévi-Strauss, then Foucault and finally Derrida. The longer-term outcomes of these profoundly un-American influences were a radically introspective shift towards an ‘anthropology of anthropology’, in the vein of James Clifford and his followers; a radical historicising of the discipline; and a quite new interest in literary theory, as cultures came no longer to be conceived in holistic terms as units or patterns, but as densely cross-cutting, fragmentary, ‘constructed’ nets of undecidable, ambiguous texts and discourses.
A final decisive influence came from the vast sums the American state devoted, in the wake of the Sputnik shock, to systematic training in dozens of languages around the world. By the late Sixties, young scholars in many fields were linguistically sophisticated to a degree unthinkable for their forebears, and thus capable, not merely of talking and living with the objects of their studies, but also of exploiting historical texts, chronicles, archives, films, comic-books, folk epics, geomantic manuals and so forth.
Nothing gives one a sharper impression of the speed and depth of these vast transformations than a comparison of Geertz’s classic The Religion of Java with On the Subject of ‘Java’, recently published by John Pemberton, perhaps the most gifted of Geertz’s disciplinary grandsons. (Pemberton studied under Geertz’s Chicago-era pupil James Siegel, author of the brilliantly Derridian ethnography of Java, Solo in the New Order.) The Religion of Java strikes one today as an astonishingly Edenic text, curiously parallel to Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s memoir Present at the Creation. It has no bibliography and very few footnotes. Scarcely a single anthropologist of importance is referred to; the vast corpus of Dutch-colonial Javanological studies is mentioned only in passing; and the Javanese are largely represented, in the way that the non-literate Nuer would be, by what they say to the anthropologist – though Javanese civilisation has a continuous literary tradition going back a millennium. In contrast, the outcome of Pemberton’s fieldwork, done exactly 30 years after Geertz’s pioneering study, is dense with references to Benjamin, Lyotard, Foucault, van Gennep, Bhabha, Jameson and de Certeau, to say nothing of Dutch Orientalists of calibre, contemporary Indonesian-language newspapers, and Javanese texts of many kinds going back to the 18th century. Meanwhile, an unproblematic out-there Java has become ‘Java’, a discursive construct of imperial officials and Javanese élites born only in the 19th century. Furthermore, while Geertz in the early Fifties positioned himself as, above all, a companionable, sharp-eyed outside observer of the whole, Pemberton implicitly aligns himself with the local victims and quiet antagonists of the Javanese-dominated authoritarian ruling class of Indonesia.
One might, in view of these transformations, be tempted to regard The Religion of Java as one of Mark Twain’s classics, that ‘everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read’. But, aside from being Geertz’s finest work, it continues to hold its audience. The question is why. In Works and Lives (1987), a sympathetic study of the grip that Evans-Pritchard, Lévi-Strauss, Benedict and Malinowski continue to have over readers, Geertz underlined these masters’ idiosyncratic moral stances and literary styles. In the best of his field ethnographies, Geertz has always shown just these qualities. Here is the early Geertz of the Pax Americana Fifties:
I talked to Djojo on the corner the other night about his marvellous grandfather ... He said his grandfather was able to disappear magically. Also he could go great distances in a short time. He would walk out of his house and announce to his wife that he was going to Semarang (three or four hundred miles away) and in fifteen minutes he would walk in, saying he had just come back from Semarang ... His grandfather was arrested once by the Dutch and taken to Bragang and put into jail because of his ilmu [magical powers] – all his pupils walking along behind as he was led in. When they returned home, they found him there in the house ready to teach ... I asked Djojo whether his grandfather could cure people, and he said, yes, he could. He said that now there are plenty of people who say they can cure people, but they really can’t, they are just swindlers deceiving people. I asked Pak Parman (the village’s best known dukun [magical healer]), and he said, ‘Oh he is just a stupid man; he can’t do anything and just cheats people out of their money ... ’ Today the leading dukuns in Modjokuto are all at least middle-aged, but none is really old.
This was a wholly new voice, and one that was to be widely imitated. The sympathetic, democratic American casually chats up a named individual, Djojo, on a street corner, ‘the other night’, as if he were a neighbour, rather than a scientist or a colonial investigator. He is happy to let Djojo speak about magic, without contradicting him; he elicits a contrary opinion from Pak Parman, a local magical healer, and then observes quietly that such healers seem likely to be dying out. The reader is invited to listen to Djojo and Parman over Geertz’s shoulder, and reflect on what they say. The anthropologist’s prose is swift, clear, simple, and the effect of the episode unforgettable.
After the Fact, published 35 years later, still has passages almost in this classical vein. Take this, for example, from an extraordinary account of a bewildering, tense celebration of Idul Fitri (the end of the Muslim fasting month) in a Javanese Islamic school in 1986:
Three quite small boys, no more than eight years old, appeared as if from nowhere. They were mimes, made up in whiteface but otherwise un-costumed in their sleeveless halfshirts 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 in the face, snatched at one another’s genitals, socked one another in the nose or eyes, in no apparent pattern, and then they collapsed, after ten minutes or so, into a heap in the centre 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 once again, after which they left the stage as precipitously as they had come, unfurling from somewhere a black banner that read ‘Happy Idul Fitri!’ The point of all this was obscure, not just to me, but to the audience in general. People whispered hypotheses and counter-hypotheses to one another, as they did with rising urgency during the entire evening, as to what the devil was going on.
Yet something has happened to the ethnographer over the Institute for Advanced Study years. ‘Or perhaps so many exhausted balloons’ is a self-conscious, superfluous flourish, after the vivid speed of ‘so many rag dolls’. Pak Parman would never have ‘whispered counter-hypotheses’. ‘People’ have displaced Djojo, and we get no chance to hear what their ‘hypotheses’ actually are. And the marvellous account of the rest of the weird performances of that holy night winds up like this:
‘The Meaning’ of all this, just what was being said, and unsaid, by whom, to whom, with what purposes, in this parade of transgressions bracketed with ritualisms, from Marceau’s Bip, through Ionesco’s ‘Language Lessons’, to Lucky’s speech in Godot, is fairly well obscure. (It is very doubtful that any of the participants had even heard of, much less witnessed, any of these, with the possible exception of Marceau or Marceau imitators – on television, and maybe, as I suggested, the Three Stooges, whom Siberian hunters and African pygmies have seen by now.)
One of the central contributions Geertz had made to anthropology in the early stages of his career was to emphasise – in a manner that blended Parsonian neo-Weberianism with the ‘patterns of culture’ thinking which had framed the work of Benedict, Mead and others of the older American generation – that cultures were ‘webs of meaning’, as he used to put it, by which people arranged their lives and projected their hopes. By 1986, a concept once quite straightforward had become trapped, upper case, in queasy quotation marks. In the Fifties Geertz would have later chatted with the little boys to learn why they performed the way they did. By 1986, he sees no need for this, assuming that like Siberian hunters they got their idea from some other culture; and the desultory, implausible loop from Ionesco to the pygmy-watched Stooges suggests a weary lack of interest – at exactly the moment when his ‘Post-Modern’ disciplinary grandchildren would be all agog.
It may be that in all this lies part of the explanation of why ‘Java Project Two’ in the once pristine ‘enchanted oasis’ of Sefrou, nestled beneath the High Atlas range, did not result in a Religion of Morocco. As Geertz mournfully writes, in 1963 ‘the place was not only made for a monograph; it sorted itself into chapters. By 1986, with the accelerating rush of changes, this was no longer so.’ By 1986, the world which made possible the kind of ethnography Geertz had earlier perfected no longer existed, overwhelmed by global capitalism, consumer culture, mass migration, and steepening abysses between wealth and misery; and the discipline he had led for so long had, probably for ever, lost its innocence and sense of central mission. Perhaps this is why Geertz likes Beckett’s stoic apophthegm: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’